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Are Friendships a Key to Longevity?

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Have you found where you feel a sense of belonging -- among a group of people who understand you? Belonging and interacting is a very integral piece to your quality of life and to your health. A few weeks ago, I returned from an incredible weekend of sister- and brother-hood among my "family" at our alma mater, New York Military Academy (NYMA). It had been about 25 years since I had seen most of them. When we arrived at alumni weekend and reunited, it was as if no time had passed as we instantly fell back into sync with one another. Looking around the room all I saw were happy faces bonding and reminiscing with their fellow former classmates. It did not matter whether or not we had been in the same circles because we shared a common experience boarding at a military academy. During the weekend, I spent 27 hours laughing, bonding, and catching up with old friends, all of whom I consider family. It is those types of relationships that feed our souls and bring in health.

When Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones -- Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, went around the world searching for areas that had the highest concentration of centenarians, those 100 years old and older, he would ask the centenarians what the secret was to their longevity and they would tell him that socialization was very important to them. When he spoke with Robert Kane, director of the Center on Aging and the Minnesota Geriatric Education Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Robert said:

There are some things I'd certainly recommend for what people would call successful aging. One of them is, in fact, to have a sense of social connectedness. Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who they feel care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well-being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level.

Laughter is so important for cardiovascular health because it reduces stress. When Dan visited the people of Okinawa, he met a group of women who had a moai, loosely translated as "meeting for a common purpose" who met regularly to talk, laugh and to support each other. One woman he spoke with said, "It's much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net." Dan writes that, "On average, an American has only two close friends he or she can count on, recently down from three, which may contribute to an increasing sense of stress." By contrast, these Okinawan women live almost 8 percent longer than their American counterparts. Why? Because every afternoon, when they get together, they shed all the chronic stress in their lives with each other.

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New York Military Academy was our moai. Cadets entered anywhere from 5th to 12th grade. Imagine living with your friends day in and day out? You do most things together, and you spend time building shared memories. I spent five years with these people, and we had seen each other at our highs and at our lows and shared a common experience that no one outside of our group could relate to or understand. It is through these lifelong bonds that we have a sense of belonging -- of camaraderie -- that makes our stress levels go down, but it is also without these people that we feel sad.

With technology, isolation is becoming more and more prevalent. People are spending more time texting and communicating via electronic devices than meeting in person with their friends. Additionally, if you go to any bar or restaurant, you will see more people engaging on their phones than with each other. Yet I hear every day how lonely and disconnected people are feeling. Just like you, others want to feel heard and to feel special. There is nothing worse than sitting with a friend telling a story while your friend is texting with someone else or more interested in the Facebook feed than in you.

Here are some tips for connecting with others:

  1. Leave the cell phone in your car's glove compartment or turn it off for an hour or two and really connect with the person from whom you are sitting across. I promise there is nothing that important on your phone that won't hold for an hour or so.
  2. Schedule time to meet with your friends. Remember the ladies of Sex in the City? I think women everywhere wished they had great girlfriends as those characters were to each other. You can too, but it requires you to nurture those relationships. Try to coordinate a regular meeting date and time for you and your friends to connect and have some fun together.
  3. Go on Meetup.com and find a group that interests you. If you do not see a group that speaks to your interests, start one! Some of my good friends are people I have met through Meetup groups.
  4. Reach out to a friend or family member you have not spoken to in a while. My cousin and I reconnected a few years back and got to know each other as adults. As a result, we have become very close and we talk very often and laugh and cry together.
  5. There is more to life than technology. Go out there and reconnect with people. Join a sports league or travel group.

Finding your moai will do wonders for your health and your spirits. Go forth and find and connect with your "moai," your "NYMA," your "family."

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Adapted from Elizabeth Gavino's upcoming book set to be released this winter.

Follow Elizabeth on facebook.com/TastingWellness or visit her website at tastingwellness.com

Photo credit (black & white photo): Salvatore Cincotta Photography.

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