The best-kept secret to slashing your mortality risk

Boost your mental, emotional, and physical health in four simple steps

I recently came across a disturbing study from the British Medical Journal about something I began warning about a few years ago. The new study showed that, for the last decade, life expectancy in the U.S. has stagnated compared to other modern, industrialized countries.1

In fact, among white, middle-aged, middle-class Americans, mortality rates have actually increased in recent years.

Many of these deaths are, sadly, attributable to our nation’s opioid epidemic. To make matters worse, the government’s response to the corona pandemic deprived tens of millions of people with chronic pain from access to safe non-drug approaches—as I outline on page 7.

Still, heart disease remains our country’s No. 1 killer. But it’s also important to look at the impact of mental and emotional health on long-term survival.

Indeed, a handful of new studies show just how crucial this is for older adults. The studies looked at several different aspects of mental and emotional health on longevity, and all honed in on the importance of social engagement as we get older.

So, let’s take a closer look at this compelling new research—starting with the health issue that’s top of mind for many of us. And then I’ll share my simple steps to help decrease loneliness…and increase longevity.

The surprising neurological impacts of coronavirus

A new study from the U.K. reveals the severity of COVID-19 complications on mental and neurological health in older people—including altered mental states, dementia-like syndrome, psychosis, and even strokes.2

During the initial growth phase of the pandemic in the U.K., from April 2-26, researchers analyzed just over 150 patients, with a median age of 71, who were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.

Researchers found that a whopping 31 percent of those patients had altered mental status—defined as sudden changes in behavior, cognition, consciousness, or personality.

And because we know so little about the long-term effects of COVID-19, it’s anyone’s bet whether these symptoms will linger after patients recover from the virus. But let’s face it…who wants to find out from his or her own personal experience?

That’s why simple precautions like hand-washing and social distancing, as I always recommend, are important to ward off the continued spread of coronavirus. But, ironically, social distancing may have unintended longevity consequences for older people…

Loneliness in the time of coronavirus

A new study out of Israel links loneliness due to corona-isolation in older adults with higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other trauma symptoms.3

But the news isn’t all bad. Interestingly, the researchers found that the mental health damage due to loneliness was most pronounced among study participants who reported feeling older than their chronological age. Those who felt younger actually exhibited no psychiatric symptoms related to loneliness.

Meanwhile, other studies have found that loneliness can make people feel older. So try to do things that make you feel young at heart—even if you’re isolated. I personally practice mindfulness mediation—which helps me feel younger than ever!

(To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, check out my book, New World Mindfulness—found under the “books” tab of my website: www.DrMicozzi.com.)

While this study applied specifically to coronavirus-related social distancing, other research shows that the effects of loneliness can have more of a long-term impact on our health…

The four factors that can shorten your lifespan

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 13,615 men and women, average age of 69, who participated in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study.4 Specifically, the researchers looked at behavioral, economic, psychological, and social factors associated with a higher risk of death and a shorter lifespan.

Out of the top 10 factors the researchers found were most associated with an early death, four can be linked to loneliness or social isolation: a history of divorce, lower life satisfaction, never having been married, and a negative mood.

Now, just imagine if you could erase all four of those factors from your life? Because according to this study, you might be able to substantially boost your longevity. Even just improving your mood lowers your risk of premature death.

Which leads me to two more new studies that reveal a simple way to do just that…

What centenarians can teach us

A study of men and women in Washington state who lived to at least age 75 found that where you live is a key factor in how long you live.5

Researchers analyzed data from 145,000 men and women who died between 2011 and 2015. They discovered that those who lived in highly walkable communities that were made up of people of all ages were more likely to live past the age of 100.

While there is a physical dimension to these findings—as people regularly engaged in moderate exercise—it also suggests that these people were not living in social isolation. Instead, they were out walking and communing with their neighbors.

These findings are backed up by a new study from New Zealand, which showed that being socially active actually decreases chronic, fatal diseases.6

Researchers examined data from over 290 centenarians without chronic diseases such as dementia, diabetes, depression, or high blood pressure. They also looked at health data from another 103,377 people, over age 60.

All of the study participants lived in their own homes in regular communities (as opposed to long-term care facilities or nursing homes).  They also had a high degree of social engagement and participation in group activities.

Results of the study showed that the participants’ rates of diabetes and depression actually declined with increasing age. Dementia rates declined after age 80, and high blood pressure rates dropped by nearly one-third from age 60 to 100.

And while all participants had similar levels of physical activity—which is also attributed to better health and longevity—what really seemed to make a difference was their level of social engagement.

My simple solutions to combat loneliness

The common theme here is the importance of social engagement for better health and a longer life.In fact, more than one study found that social factors were far more important than the physical factors the mainstream so often stresses.

The bottom line is this: Social isolation works against health and longevity. Whether we’re enduring a global pandemic or simply living under ordinary circumstances, there’s a greater emotional burden of isolation among older people.

That’s why it’s important you protect your mental and emotional health during self-isolation. So, here are four simple, effective steps to help you cope with feelings of boredom, emptiness, or isolation…and ultimately, boost your longevity.

Talk it out. Regular conversations with family members, volunteers, and even strangers can head off the onset of deeper loneliness and a sense of isolation. Even if you can’t converse in person, phone or online video chats can help you feel more connected.

Share your wisdom. Older people have accumulated a lot of knowledge and wisdom over the years. Sharing your experiences can help you feel more valuable (and, in turn, is quite valuable for younger people).

Get creative. Cooking, reading, listening to or playing music, painting, dancing—any sort of creative activity helps engage your brain and turns off negative thinking. You might also find online groups to join for your newfound hobby.

Take a hike. Recreational activities can be restorative and refreshing. Plenty of studies show that getting out into Nature, water, and green spaces (even while socially distancing) is highly beneficial for your mental, emotional—and physical—health.

Sources:

1“Recent trends in life expectancy across high income countries: retrospective observational study.” BMJ 2018;362:k2562.

2“Neurological and neuropsychiatric complications of COVID-19 in 153 patients: a UK-wide surveillance study.” Lancet Psychiatry. 2020;S2215-0366(20)30287-X.

3“COVID-19 Related Loneliness and Psychiatric Symptoms among Older Adults: The Buffering Role of Subjective Age.” Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2020;S1064- 7481(20)30347-X.

4“Predicting mortality from 57 economic, behavioral, social, and psychological factors.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jun 2020, 201918455.

5“Environmental Correlates of Reaching a Centenarian Age: Analysis of 144,665 Deaths in Washington State for 2011−2015.”  Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(8):2828.

6“The Great Escape. Centenarians’ exceptional health.” Aging Clin Exp Res. 2020;10.1007/s40520-020-01552-w.


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