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The Soft Drivers of Longevity

Last week we took a deep dive into the cellular processes that constitute the  nine hallmarks of aging.  We consider these to be a great framework for developing a good longevity protocol.  But they don’t paint the full picture.  This week we complement the science of cellular aging with the science behind the “soft” drivers of longevity.   When it comes to staying healthy, most of our efforts go into trying to eat well and exercise sufficiently.   As a result, we are likely to underinvest in what research has identified as “external” drivers of longevity.  These have to do with the quality of our social relationships, our overall outlook on life, and the ways in which we interact with the world.  We don’t often think of these aspects of our lives as key factors for longevity, but the evidence is pretty clear. Let’s dive in.

We first encountered the term “soft-drivers' of longevity” when browsing through the book  Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.  The book’s author is  Marta Zaraska, a widely published science journalist (Scientific American, New Scientist, the Atlantic) who became interested in the link between social connection and mortality after coming across a research that showed that having a healthy social  fabric around us can decrease risk of mortality by more than diet and exercise can when added together.  She became personally intrigued by this connection as her focus on staying healthy had always been on diet and exercise.  As she dug in, she felt compelled to write the book. She came across many studies that consistently showed the importance of social connections for longevity.  “We are a social species, and there is a clear connection between our social bonds and our physiology and well-being.”  

In fact, the evidence behind this connection is very compelling.  One good place to start is this  heavily cited review presenting the findings from multiple studies on socialization and suggesting thatsocial connection reduces your risk of early deathby 50%!  The same relationship between these soft-drivers and longevity was observed empirically in the research of centenarians conducted for the  Blue Zones project  One of the commonalities observed in all the Blue Zone centenarians was having the “right” outlook on life and the prevalence of strong social connections around them..

Listen to Marta Zaraska chat about the soft drivers of longevity in this  great episode of The 5 AM Miracle Podcast. 

Based on the evidence she found in her research, Zaraska identified six soft-drivers of longevity. For ease, we organize them into external and internal factors in the model below.


Soft Drivers of Longevity Marta Zaraska

The top half of the model is defined by the way we interact with the world.  While we probably don’t spend much time thinking about this intentionally, we all exert a level of control over the size of our social networks, the quality of our relationships, and whether or not we engage in volunteering.

The bottom half of the model might appear to be driven by more static factors as they are largely defined by our personalities and they have to do with how we perceive the world and the people around us. In our view, there are concrete actions we can take  to increase our range across all six factors.

External Drivers

Social Networks. The health of social networks is defined by the size, density, and contact frequency within a person’s web of relationships (family, friends, community). Many observational studies (examples:  here,  here, and  here) have shown that larger social networks are associated with a lower risk of death. More recently  this study found that even if your social network doesn’t extend outside of your own city or town, individuals with small networks have an increased mortality risk by 24-36%. Social networks have also been examined in terms of strength of connection; one longitudinal  study found that among its 27,000+ participants, those with a small social network (< 10 people) were 1.48 times more likely to die and that a small number of weak social ties (defined as persons with whom the participant was not close but was still important enough to include in their network) is associated with a 25-55% increase in mortality risk.  Diversity in social networks is important for health and well-being, and the authors attribute having a small number of weak ties to a lack of diversity in social networks which subsequently affects health and ultimately lifespan.

Relationships are defined as recurrent socialization between two or more people. Relationships require connection and can be examined in terms of their quality or quantity.  This decades old study helped establish the idea that relationships influence mortality, and while it’s been cited hundreds of times, social connectivity still isn’t widely considered a risk factor for early death. More recently,  this meta-analysis of148 studies showed that individuals with strong relationships are 50% more likely to survive into advanced age. Zarasta emphasizes the importance of having a close, romantic relationship is a predictor of longevity.

Volunteerism is defined by type of activity (e.g., committee work, educational tutoring, commu- nity fund-raising, environmental cleanup, etc), number of hours spent, number of activities, or frequency of involvement.  This decades old book was among the first wave of scientific research suggesting that volunteering can improve morale, self-esteem, and social integration. As research into volunteering as a relevant and viable topic began to take off,  this prospective study of 1,972 participants found that volunteering for 2 or more organizations/activities reduced your risk of mortality by 63%. Much more recently,  this longitudinal study of  10,324 participants found that volunteering increased the chances of survival by 19% in healthy individuals. 

Taken together, the results of all of these studies suggest to us that taking care of our social lives is integral to maintaining our health long-term. In studying social wellness, we came across this helpful  toolkit from National Institutes of Health. In it, there are six articles with very actionable tips that will help you better manage your social health.  None of these tips are surprising, but they are a great reminder of many easy things we can do to improve the health of our social network and therefore our own!  Also from NIH, we liked this helpful  checklist to maintain social wellness.

Internal Drivers

Conscientiousness isbeing thoughtful, organized, and able to control impulses and delay your own gratification. It’s one of the  “Big Five” personality traits and has been associated with beneficial health outcomes like a lower risk of  obesity and less engagement in  risky behaviors (e.g., drugs, alcohol, etc). In terms of longevity,conscientiousness is associated with better chances of survival. This  meta-analysis of seven cohort studies (N= 76,150) showed that low levels of conscientiousness correlated with an increased likelihood of death (1.4 times higher) when  compared to cohorts with high levels of conscientiousness. Another  study showed that higher levels of conscientiousness reduced circulating levels of IL-6, an inflammatory marker that contributes to chronic disease and mortality. The mechanisms of how conscientiousness may affect longevity are examined in this  study. Using data from 512 participants, the researchers constructed a model analyzing mortality data, conscientiousness, and possible confounding variables. After running the models, conscientiousness was associated with longer lifespans independent of the confounding variables.  While potential mechanisms of action are not fully clear, the authors discovered that cognitive functioning (demonstrated by word recall, delayed recall, and vocabulary skills) helped explain at least part of the association between conscientiousness and longer lifespan.   Want to know how you rate on conscientiousness? Take the  Big Five assessment.

Optimism is a psychological trait characterized by the general assumption that good things will happen and things will work out in your favor. Positive psychology promotes optimism as a desirable trait to cultivate within yourself because of its link to mental well-being but, until recently, optimism wasn’t heavily researched in terms of its effects on longevity.

Recently, a  study titled  “Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women” published findings on the effect of optimism on lifespan. Using cohort data from two sets of data: women from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) with follow-up of 10 years, and men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS) with follow-up of 30 years, researchers assessed optimism and its correlation with exceptional longevity (surviving to 85+ years). In both sets of data, optimism correlated with longevity along a dose-dependent curve--higher levels of optimism increased longevity. In fact, participants with the highest optimism scores increased their odds of surviving to 85 by 1.5 (women) and 1.7 (men) when compared with the lowest scores for optimism. One of the  most recent studies on optimism and longevity found that among its 1500+ participants, higher levels of optimism (defined by three measures from the Scale of Subjective Wellbeing in Older Persons: total optimism, optimistic future, happiness) improved 5-year survival rates in older adults. 

If you want dial up your optimism, read  Learned Optimism, the classic book by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology 4.4 stars / 1,443 ratings on Amazon). 

Kindness is being friendly, warm, considerate, and compassionate towards other people. Part of being kind also means extending those qualities to yourself. Empirically, kindness has been shown to increase  self-esteem, empathy and compassion, and improve mood; it has also been shown to  decrease cortisol levels, reduce blood pressure and  free radicals via oxytocin, and helps  control inflammationin our bodies via the  vagus nerve.

While these internal drivers may initially seem to be hardwired into us (or not depending on who you are), we think they’re still worth working on. We may not be naturally conscientious, but we can give our decisions and actions a little extra thought especially regarding our physical, social, and emotional health. Optimism may not be our natural bent, but keeping a  gratitude list can steer us away from seeing the glass half empty. Perhaps easiest of them all is kindness because we can all make a choice to engage with others (as well as ourselves) with a bit more patience, love, and compassion.

Got 30 minutes? Delve deeper into kindness and longevity with  this episode of All In The Mind.

Ready to put some of these soft drivers into action? Check out  this article from Today on how you extend kindness and compassion to yourself and those around you (including your enemies). PS: We really love #3--reach out to others--because it reflects back to the actionable drivers and helps further establish social connectivity.

Share your experiences with the soft drivers of longevity with us or anything we may have left

This content is general in nature and for informational purposes only. Nowgevity content is not intended to constitute medical or other professional advice and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, procedure, or treatment, whether it is a prescription medication, over-the-counter drug, vitamin, supplement, or herbal alternative. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have on Nowgevity’s website or emails. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk. 

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