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How to Live a Longer, Healthier Life


When coronavirus struck my region of France, and it hit it hard, my first instinct was to work on my immune system by eating tons of broccoli and running every day on my treadmill. Soon, however, these initial thoughts were replaced by a different set — that extra exercise and obsessive nutrition were not the way to go. After all, I should know better. After researching my book, Growing Young, which involved reading more than 600 scholarly papers and talking to dozens of scientists, I’m now convinced that my diet and exercise routines are good enough. Instead, what my immune system needed in these tough and stressful pandemic times was more kindness, more back rubs and more time spent on the couch with my husband, perhaps mixed with some Macarena dancing.

While healthy nutrition and physical activity are indeed important for health, there are things we all too often sacrifice that have an outsize impact on our centenarian potential. Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness. Volunteering. Science shows that these ‘soft’ health drivers are often more powerful than diet and exercise. Consider the numbers: studies show that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 per cent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower that risk by 23 to 33 per cent. Eating six servings of fruit and veg per day can cut the danger of dying early by 26 per cent, while following the Mediterranean diet by 21 per cent. For volunteering, it’s 22 to 44 per cent.

On the flip side, loneliness is a true health-wrecker — which is quite ironic in times when we need to socially isolate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People who are socially isolated not only have shorter telomeres and increased expression of many gene modules that promote cancer progression, they even have less efficient immune systems that respond poorly to viruses. Luckily, however, there are certain tricks we can do to boost our immune systems while socially distancing. Here are a few examples:


Adults who report receiving more frequent hugs are buffered against the increased risk of upper respiratory infection. And yes, with social distancing measures we are not supposed to go around hugging people left and right, but if you do have someone you can embrace COVID-safely, then please do it often. In a similar way massages, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes can also give you an extra dose of social hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. From a health and longevity perspective, that’s great news. Oxytocin can strengthen your immune response while serotonin can lower the risk of high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease and improve vascular tone.


Stress is bad for your immune system — even when it’s voluntarily chosen. When one group of students watched the 1974 version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, their leukocytes fired out tons of reactive oxygen species, suggesting that their immune systems got temporarily messed up by the stress. So for your pandemic entertainment try comedy instead — laughing releases oxytocin and endorphins, natural pain killers.


Many animals huddle together to keep warm and save energy. Humans, too, seem to have a hardwired connection between social relationships and physical warmth. The key lies in the insula, a small, pyramid-shaped structure deep within the cerebral cortex that is important both for how we perceive temperature and how we perceive others.  That is why taking a hot shower or even holding a warm cup of tea makes us feel more connected to others and boosts feelings of belonging — which could potentially offset at least some side effects of COVID-related social isolation.


While singing or dancing with others makes us feel connected, doing it in synchrony has even more powerful effects. Science reveals that synchrony causes release of endorphins and keeps our blood cortisol low, while making people feel more included and more bonded. Even tapping your fingers in rhythm with a partner does the trick, promoting warm feelings of togetherness. In times when we are particularly prone to loneliness, synchrony can be an extra help. You could try a session of singing together or maybe dance a Macarena. Doing it over Skype or Zoom may well be enough — in one study synchrony performed over virtual reality worked to boost social closeness, too.


Another trick to improving your immune health while socially distancing is to pick up the phone and call — yes, the traditional way — instead of texting. Research shows that hearing the voice of your loved ones over the phone gives you an oxytocin boost that text messaging or commenting on social media cannot provide. Oxytocin, meanwhile, not only plays a role in your immune system, it can also reduce pain and inflammation, and even promote bone health.