We celebrated my husband’s birthday last week, catching up with a few – a very few – old friends, like Annabel, in our garden. We spaced them out chronologically and physically across the afternoon and evening. It was both lovely and slightly strange. But the joy of seeing people face to face after so long! Like so many others, we’ve kept up with friends and families via Zoom and FaceTime but interaction via a screen, wonderful though it can be, isn’t quite the same.
We’re social animals, and the long-term effects of this period of enforced isolation will reverberate in health outcomes for a long time. When we wrote about the importance of social engagement in The Age-Well Project, we little imagined what was to come. The detrimental effects of quarantine were revealed in a very specific way earlier this month, when the Alzheimer’s Society revealed 80% of care homes had reported a deterioration in the health of their dementia patients during lockdown – due to social isolation. One-quarter of those who’ve died with Covid-19 also had dementia, making it, along with diabetes, the most common pre-existing condition for deaths in the UK. And leaving aside corona virus, there were 83% more deaths from dementia in April than usual, which the charity ascribed to increased isolation and reduced health/social care.
HOW TO ‘GROW YOUNG’
For those of us doing all we can to reduce our risk of dementia, the role of socialisation in ageing well can’t be overlooked. I recently interviewed science writer and author of Growing Young, Marta Zaraska. The sub-title of her book, How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, emphasises the role of social engagement in ageing well. When Marta began investigating how best to give her young daughter a long and healthy life, she stumbled across research indicating that social relationships could be the key to longevity, rather than, say, the amount of broccoli we eat.
Marta invites us to imagine Person A, a health junkie who chooses the gym and superfoods over spending time on relationships, friends, or volunteering; and Person B, who is a little overweight, loves cookies but who’s engaged with their neighbours, extremely empathetic and happily married. ‘The question is,’ asks Marta, ‘who’s healthier? They may be the same, or Person B might actually be better off. It’s mind-blowing when we consider the way we currently evaluate health.’ She believes we’ve become so fixated on counting calories, or steps, we’ve lost sight of the real priorities.
CONNECTING TO OUR TRIBE
And, as some of us start to emerge from lockdown and re-engage with our social networks – albeit with distancing measures in place – what we’re really doing is connecting with our tribe. The feeling we call loneliness is actually an atavistic urge to connect with others who can protect us from animal attacks on the savannah. When we can’t do that, the body’s response is inflammation, one of the key drivers of ageing. Marta explains, ‘The tribe means safety so our stress axis evolved to calm when we feel strongly connected to others. Stress goes through the roof when we’re lonely.’
This isn’t about being the life and soul of the party (remember them?). Marta urges us to take care of our friendship circle, however small, to reap the benefits, ‘I definitely put a lot of effort into seeing my friends several times a week. And at least once a week my husband and I have a special date night. They’re nothing fancy, and often at home. For example, we’ll make a random music choice, like Peruvian jazz, and dance to that! The important thing is trying new things together’.
Spending time with other people is her priority, ‘Recently I was considering preparing for a half marathon in my village. But I decided not to do it, as it would take me away from family. Instead, I run for half an hour, three times a week. And I also make time to sit on the couch with my husband.’
How have you been connecting with friends and loved ones recently? And how do you feel about it? Let us know in the comments below.