The Longevity Project, Part 4: Loneliness a major health risk for aging population
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One of the keys to living a long and healthy life isn’t related to diet, exercise or genetics.
Strong social connections — or lack thereof — rank near the top of mortality risk factors.
“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” said developmental psychologist Susan Pinker in a 2017 Ted Talk.
A recent study found nearly half of all Americans feel lonely, with younger people among the loneliest surveyed. Another study found loneliness can increase the risk of death by 26 to 45 percent — the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Two of the Blue Zone’s nine keys to longevity, which were discovered among the communities of the world where people living the longest and healthiest, relate to social connectivity.
On the Nicoyan Peninsula in Costa Rica, people visit often, getting seven to eight hours of face-to-face conversation each day. In Okinawa, Japan, “moais” are formed — social groups that can be relied upon for emotional or financial support in times of need throughout life.
The eighth Blue Zone key — “Loved Ones First” — showed successful centenarians had families who kept aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, a devotion to children and a commitment to a life partner.
“Right Tribe,” another Blue Zone longevity habit, showed the world’s longest-lived people had strong social circles, providing lifelong support and reinforcing healthy behaviors.
Another Blue Zone key is “Belong,” which revealed that 98 percent of the centenarians interviewed by researcher and journalist Dan Buettner, author of “Blue Zones,” belonged to a faith-based group, regardless of denomination.
As people age, there’s the practical factor of having people to rely on for caregiving, emotional support, and for running errands. But at any age, a growing body of research shows face-to-face social interactions — whether with the barista every morning at the coffee shop or a constant best friend — have mental and physical health effects.
Loneliness causes stress, which causes an increase in cortisol and higher levels of inflammation in the body, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, joint disease, depression, dementia, obesity and premature death.
Supportive social interactions have been linked to a stronger immune system, better cardiovascular function, more efficient production of hormones, and a higher level of cognitive function.
In Hayden, a group of seniors meets twice a week for lunch at the American Legion Hall. They laugh a lot, update each other on their lives and catch up on town happenings.
It’s typically the same core group, with occasional additions and visitors.
“It’s really important, especially in a small rural town, to have these connections,” said Sue Reed over a lunch of chicken, zucchini, salad and roasted potatoes.
The group laments there aren’t enough meals shared around a table these days, especially without the presence of electronic devices.
“Bill comes for the women,” joked one diner.
“Sue comes for the brownies,” joked another.
“If I have a blue day at home, it brings my attitude up,” Shirley Gossert said.
The group of seniors talk about other places where they enjoy strong social connections — church, the library, football games. Many have deep roots in Hayden, with multiple generations living close by.
“When a crisis comes in your life, you’ve got a broader community to help you deal with it,” said Chuck Girton.
The meals in Hayden, Steamboat and Oak Creek are sponsored by the Routt County Council on Aging, which also provides transportation. The nonprofit also delivers meals and hosts exercise classes, wellness clinics, bingo and bridge.
“Everything we do is geared toward facilitating social connections,” said Executive Director Meg Tully.
It can be easy for older people to become isolated, Tully said, so her organization works to do whatever they can to help seniors get out and meet people with similar interests and share in a nourishing meal.
Returning from the Monday lunch at the community center in Oak Creek, Janie Romick said she attends three times a week — a welcome chance to get out of the house and socialize.
Having recently lost her husband of 65 years, Romick, 83, said her friends and family have become more important than ever.
“Everyone came forward,” she said. “They nourished me. They have been here every step of the way.”
When she required medical care, her sons and their families “came through for me in a way I never knew possible.”
Several of her closest friends are nearly 20 years younger, and they say they have trouble keeping up with Romick. She also meets with a group of about 20 women once a month for dinner.
“I’m the oldest,” she said. “Most of them are much younger, but they treat me like one of them.”
Romick loves her community and the amenities of Oak Creek and she enjoys knowing the people who work at the grocery store, bank, post office, clinic and drug store.
“People recognize you and show they care for you,” Romick said.
Living alone for the first time in a very long time, Romick has also found solace in Bud, her 2-year-old Australian shepherd.
“My dog has been my salvation,” Romick said. “I swore I’d never have a dog sleep with me, but now I do.”
According to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, owning a dog is linked to better cardiovascular health and a longer life, especially for people who live alone.
A place to belong
In and around Steamboat Springs, about 300 people, age 50 and older, belong to the Over the Hill Gang.
Jack Ferguson, 75, has been a member for close to 20 years. He just returned from a ski trip to Chile with a handful of members of the group and is planning a bike trip to Croatia next year.
On Tuesday, he went on a bike trip, followed by lunch, in Glenwood Canyon, then to the group’s weekly happy hour. His day ended at a party with a group from the “gang.”
They organize golf tournaments, book clubs, gardening, hikes, snowshoeing, pickleball and monthly dinners.
“You name it,” Ferguson said. “It gets you out and keeps you active and meeting people with similar interests. If anything, there’s almost too much to do.”
But it isn’t just about activities and social get-togethers. After Ferguson’s wife died, he had a support group.
“You really feel a sense of community, especially for those whose kids and grandkids may not be in the area,” Ferguson added. “There are all kinds of people there to help you in whatever capacity it may be.”
Ferguson said he’s met people from around the country and world who were inspired and impressed by Steamboat’s Over the Hill Gang and what it added to the community.
And while connecting to contemporaries is positive for fostering friendships, connectivity can come at any age.
Several times a week, residents at Casey’s Pond hang out with the toddlers from UCHealth Grandkids Child Care Center. They meet for picnics in the park, ice cream socials, sing-a-longs and holiday events.
In September, old and young were paired up for an art project making brightly painted small and large handprints arranged in the shape of a heart.
At one table, a 97-year-old and a 4-year-old joyfully collaborated on a piece of artwork, each with a hand covered in green paint.
The Grandkids intergenerational program has been around for almost 30 years and was the first of its kind in Colorado.
“It’s heartwarming,” said Grandkids Director Joyce Delancey, as she watched the spirited tots seated next to smiling seniors, hands covered in paint. “They have an unconditional love for each other.”
Laura Oslowski, community life coordinator at Casey’s Pond, said shared activities are important for both generations.
“The kids learn lifelong lessons of respect and how to talk to elders,” Oslowski said. “And the energy in the room — everyone comes alive.”
“It’s fun to see the enthusiasm of the youngsters,” said Gamber Tegtmeyer, 85.
Then, he noted, just as the little ones get really wound up, they are turned back over to the Grandkids staff.
A life well lived
Upstairs at Casey’s Pond, 95-year-old resident Helen Iacovetto waits for her cinnamon rolls to finish baking.
“Family is very important to me,” she said, of her family growing up, and now, her kids, nine grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren.
Iacovetto moved to Routt County in 1938, and her family became established throughout the Yampa Valley ranching and running various businesses. She and her husband bought and remodeled Dream Island in 1950. On her recent 95th birthday, her goal was to ride a horse, which she did at her son’s ranch. About 50 family members showed up for her party on the patio at Casey’s Pond.
Sometimes people get to a certain age and want to give up, Iacovetto said. For her, it’s her family that keeps her from feeling that way.
And she continues to give back. Last winter, she crocheted 24 hats for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. She’s got a new batch she’s been working on all summer.
For her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Iacovetto said she wants what any grandmother would want — “a long and happy life.”
In the developed world, women live on average six to eight years longer than men. One reason for this statistic is the prioritization women give to social relationships and networks over their lifespan.
“These in-person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline,” Pinker said. “Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas, bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer.”
Another commonality of Blue Zone communities is in its respect for and inclusion of elders throughout life.
“Appreciate the elders in your life,” said gerontologist Liz Handing. “Learn from the people who’ve gone before you.”
While family connections and friendships are important, so are the daily interactions, whether at the bakery, grocery store, or even a smile exchanged with a stranger passing by. Researchers find both are crucial components of longevity.
In all parts of Routt County, the sense of community is frequently cited as one of the most appealing parts of living here.
“It’s very special,” said Handing, a Steamboat native. “Because everyone cares for each other.”
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