Yes, yes, I know it’s a schmaltz fest designed to keep card manufacturers and red rose sellers in business. But bear with me because many of the less tacky elements of Valentine’s Day help us live longer, healthier, happier lives – exactly what The Age-Well Project is all about.
Love, hugs and the corona virus
If ever there’s a day for hugs, it’s Valentine’s. A German study, published last year, found that any form of human touch reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Physical touch stimulates the release of oxytocin from your brain’s pituitary gland, which in turn lowers inflammation (the root of so many ageing processes). Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone”, is triggered when we fall in love, hug, kiss, cuddle and, yes, have sex. In fact, February 14th should be renamed ‘Oxytocin Day’.
It works like this: the vagus nerve (also known as the ‘love nerve’, I wrote about it last week) is connected to receptors of oxytocin, so when this hormone is released the vagus is stimulated and it, in turn, stimulates the brain-body connection to lower stress levels.
Having said that, we are in the midst of a global corona virus outbreak, and health experts are advising us to avoid human contact, which is rather sad. Professor John Oxford from Queen Mary University, speaking on Radio 4 yesterday explained that corona virus, ‘is a social virus….what we need to do is less of the handshaking, hugging, kissing, that sort of thing because this virus looks like its spread by ordinary tidal breathing, not necessarily colds and coughing.’ So maybe, this Valentine’s Day, be a little more economical with the hugs…..
The best type of love comes with, and grows from, empathy. Empathy helps us to imagine why someone might feel a certain way, and to be concerned for their welfare. Research shows that the type of empathy we feel alters as we get older: our cognitive empathy (the ability to perceive the emotions of another person) declines, but our emotional empathy – our ability to share the experience – may increase.
Developing empathy is one of the best ways of enhancing our longevity: research shows that empathetic people really do live longer. The kindest people are the ones who are toning their vagus nerves, reducing stress and lowering inflammation. The mind-body connection is that powerful. Looking at things from another person’s point of view is the biggest step towards this. Seek opportunities to be kind every day, read books and watch films to understand the perspective of others, look at art to experience not just the piece itself but the artist’s creative process.
(There’s a fantastic book, Growing Young, all about how our human interactions impact ageing, out in the Spring. I’ve interviewed the author so I’ll be able to share that with you soon. It’s fascinating).
In our book, The Age-Well Project, we discuss the longevity advantage that marriage seems to confer, particularly for men. ‘Steadily married’ women do well too, but divorced and single women don’t lag far behind. For the steadily married of both sexes, putting a ring on it brings both physical benefits – an increase in oxytocin and reduced stress response – and emotional ones, such as more social interaction and greater attention to health.
Research published this week focusses in on these benefits. A team at Michigan State University found that happy partners create healthier futures together. Having an optimistic other half helps keep people healthy, staving off the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline. The study’s co-author said that partners, ‘might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier or remind us to take our medicine. When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life. You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses.’
If all else fails, there’s always chocolate. Read Annabel’s blog post about the Age-Well benefits of chocolate, with the most delicious recipe for Chocolate, Chestnut and Orange Cake. Do give it a try.
Here are a few more of our favourite chocolate recipes from the blog:
Dark chocolate salted-peanut flapjacks – delicious energy treats when you’re on the go
Chocolate peanut squares – my all-time favourite and a huge hit with my family
Chocolate pancakes – like eating Black Forest Gateau for breakfast, but healthy
Coffee and chocolate brainies – packed with brain-boosting ingredients
Despite writing all this, I won’t get to spend Valentine’s Day with my love. I’ll be holed up in remote Norfolk working on The Age-Well Plan: Your Six-Week Workbook for a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life. The deadline looms and I’ve got a lot to do. I hope your Valentine’s Day is more fun!
photo: Marcelo Terrazo