Excerpt from Teach Yourself Living Longer, Living Well, to be published by Teach Yourself, an imprint of Hodder Headline, 2008.
In this chapter you will learn:
- How relationships can lengthen your life
- How pets can improve your wellbeing
- How love can survive death.
There’s no proof that AndrÃ© Debry and his wife Marguerite lived longer together than they would have done separately. But you could safely bet on it. In August 2004 they celebrated their wedding anniversary. Not their 50th. Not their 60th. Nor even their 70th. On August 12th they had been married 80 years.
And, in fact, they went on to celebrate 81 years. When Monsieur Debry, one of eight surviving WW1 French soldiers known as les poilus (the hairy ones), died two weeks later their combined ages were 207.
Was it exercise? Was it food? Was it spirituality? It may have been all those things. But the Debrys also had something very special. Something that the more you give of it the more you have and the more you get. What is this remarkable substance? It’s called love and you probably won’t get very old without it:
- If you don’t love yourself you won’t look after yourself.
- If you don’t love anyone or anything else your life won’t have any point.
- If you take care of the first two, the third – being loved – comes automatically.
Of course, that’s not to say the Debrys loved more passionately than any other couple. But it is to say that if they hadn’t loved they probably wouldn’t have reached the ages they did.
That special someone
All relationships are good for us. Our degree of connection with other people is a key indicator of longevity. But it seems one type of relationship is more powerful than any other. That’s the committed relationship between lovers.
A study by the University of New Mexico School of Medicine of 256 elderly people found that those who had a close one-to-one relationship were the healthiest. Somehow, being involved in a single, intimate relationship gave them stronger immune systems, better cardiovascular health and more endorphins (which suppress pain and, in sufficient quantity, create euphoria).
In fact, according to a study by Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, being married is about the easiest way of prolonging life. Especially for men.
For a man, living alone is particularly unhealthy. A man alone is three times more likely to suffer a mental disorder than a married man while a divorced man is five times more at risk. Men without partners also suffer a far higher rate of various illnesses. A divorced or separated man, for example, is 10 times more likely to die from TB than if he’d remained married and the death rates are also very significantly higher for cirrhosis, pneumonia and cancer of the mouth and throat. It all adds up to 10 extra years for men who are married.
For women the figure is less dramatic but still a very significant four years. Women whose partners are supportive suffer far less from stress and depression than women who live alone. Another study discovered that women who were lonely had poor immune function.
Scientists at the University of California studied US census data and concluded that married couples are more likely to live to a very old age than the unmarried, divorced or widowed. In fact, people who never marry are almost two-thirds more likely to die prematurely, and the picture for single men is the worst of all.
None of this is surprising. In a sense, loneliness is a disease. We’re social creatures and we need the company of others. In particular, we need people we can feel close to. People who care about us. People who support us when we have problems. People we can touch and be touched by.
Love is the food of health
It’s a need that begins the day we’re born. In the 1940s, RenÃ© Spitz made a pioneering study of infants in orphanages and compared them with those born in and living in prison with their mothers. Within two years of beginning his research, even though the standards of hygiene, medical care and nutrition were good, 37 per cent of the infants in the orphanages were dead. None of the infants in prison were. Spitz concluded that the infants essentially died from a lack of love.
In another study, Harold Skeels demonstrated the benefits of removing infants from orphanages and placing them with surrogate mothers who would love them. Three decades later he set out to discover what had become of them all. Although the infants had been classified as mentally retarded, he found they were all living normally in the community and had an average IQ of 92. Meanwhile, the infants who had been left behind in the orphanages were either dead or still institutionalised at the same date.
The need to be loved, and to love, never leaves us. A study by Sam Sisca, Patricia Walsh and Anthony Walsh asked people to rate to what extent they felt loved or unloved. They discovered that the more someone felt unloved the higher their blood pressure. And, significantly, the effect was increasingly marked with age, suggesting to the researchers that years of love deprivation had had a cumulative effect.
Most of us have that feeling we’re not complete when we’re alone. It’s reflected in many creation stories. In Hinduism, for example, in the beginning there was the ONE. But the ONE was lonely and therefore created a companion. In the Bible, God created man and then decided it was not good for man to be alone. So he created woman. And the Bible says the two must become one flesh. That’s how the vast majority of us feel. We want to be united. Alone, life seems to have little point.
Less love, more stress
How can a lack of love and human warmth explain physical symptoms? How can love deprivation raise blood pressure? How can it depress immune function? How can love itself make people healthier? It may sound like a lot of New Age hocus-pocus but, in fact, science has uncovered the very simple pathways that make the holistic approach an inescapable reality.
A lot of it is to do with stress. People who feel unloved have a low resistance to stress. People who feel loved have a high resistance. A fascinating illustration of this was provided in 2006 by a team led by Dr Anna Phillips at the University of Birmingham. Happily married volunteers were stressed by being given a mental arithmetic test in their homes. When their partners were in the room, blood pressure and heart rates were lower. When the subjects were alone, however, blood pressure and heart rate went up and, what’s more, performance went down. Interestingly, the effect was more marked for women than men.
Stress, as we saw in Chapter 05, causes the secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and raises the level of fatty lipids in the blood. If the stress goes on for years the result is arteriosclerosis – hardening and narrowing of the arteries – leading to chronically high blood pressure. Stress also pushes up cortisol (a stress-related hormone that depresses the immune system) and has damaging effects on the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory and endocrine (hormonal) systems.
We all know of the phrase ‘died of a broken heart.’ And, in fact, it can literally be true:
- Lovelessness can lead to illness, including heart problems.
And what are the most stressful events? On the Holmes-Rahe Life Change Scale they’re all to do with personal relationships. The most stressful thing that can happen to anybody is the death of a spouse, which is rated as 100. That’s followed by divorce, separation and the death of a close family member. So stress is, above all, a ‘disease’ of loneliness and lovelessness.
Dr Paul Pearsall had cancer of the lymph nodes that spread to his bones. He had chemotherapy, he had radiation, he had surgery. As he came round from an operation he actually heard a doctor say: ‘I think we’ve lost him.’
It was then, according to his own account, that he became aware of his wife’s breath on his cheek. He felt her tears falling on his eyelids. He felt her fingers touching his arms, chest, and the scars on his abdomen. And he heard her say: ‘I love you. I’m here.’
At that moment he experienced a kind of revelation. He understood that the whole point of life is to connect. As intensely, intimately and sensuously as possible. When you’re very ill, he realised, the most important thing is to be seen, heard, touched and understood by another loving person.
At the time of writing this, 20 years after that moment of revelation, Dr Pearsall is still alive.
Dr Pearsall was a clinical psychoneuroimmunologist – a specialist in the brain’s interaction with the immune system. He now invented what he called psychoneurosexuality, the study of the relationship between the brain, the mind, the immune system and the sexual system.
We’ll be looking at sex in the next chapter. As regards your immune system, it comprises about a trillion lymphocytes and 100 million trillion antibodies. And here’s a curious thing. Your skin is actually the largest part of it. Effectively, when you touch somebody, you touch them with your immune system. Dr Pearsall believes that when people live together, their immune systems are actually connected to and interacting with one another’s (just as, when women live together, their cycles tend to become synchronised).
In his view, the brain probably shouldn’t be thought of as existing only inside the skull, and the mind certainly shouldn’t be thought of as existing only inside the brain. He believes the mind is more or less everywhere within the body.
In a way, we’ve always known it and yet never openly acknowledged it. The proof is our everyday use of phrases such as ‘gut feeling,’ ‘a pain in the neck,’ and ‘breaking my heart.’
And that’s a view bolstered by a team led by Gerard Karsenty of Columbia University. In 2007 they discovered that the skeleton acts as a part of the endocrine system, which uses hormones to send signals. That’s another way of saying that even the skeleton is effectively part of the mind. Incredible!
One of the most fascinating hormones of the ‘body-as-mind’ is oxytocin.
There’s good evidence that, apart from anything else, oxytocin can help you live longer. It’s certainly been proven to extend the life of rats. And, so far, no one has found anything against it, other than its curious tendency to make people forgetful. On the contrary, it has some marvellous effects, such as increasing your sense of attachment to your partner. In fact, it might be called the marital satisfaction molecule. (And it can similarly improve your relationships with your children – and anyone else you’re close to.)
So where can you get hold of this wonderful substance? The good news is you don’t even have to go to the shops. It’s free. It’s actually secreted by your own pituitary gland. To improve your chances of reaching 100 or more, all you need to do is increase the output. Unfortunately, you have no direct control over your pituitary. However, there is a special indirect technique you can learn.
Here it is. Are you ready? Take your hand and place it on the skin of the person you love. Yup, that’s all there is to it. Of course, now you know that, you can always work out your own ways of improving the basic technique. But the essence of it is simply touching. When you touch someone you love, or someone you love touches you, so your oxytocin level rises.
Oxytocin’s extraordinary role began when you were born. It was responsible for your mother’s contractions, it was responsible for making milk flow from her breasts, it was responsible for making her maternal and your father paternal, it made your parents more likely to stick together and it was why they didn’t chuck you out when you cried for the hundredth time in a day. On top of all that, it helped your brain develop properly – without it some of your brain cells would have died. So if it hadn’t been for touch and oxytocin your life would all have been so very different.
Get touching and hugging at once. Here’s what to do right now:
- If you have a partner give him or her a hug. Find some place you can put your hand on bare skin.
- If you have children give them a hug. If they refuse to be hugged then, at least, deliver a slap on the back or a squeeze of the shoulders; the very minimum is a high five.
- If you have parents, sisters, brothers, whatever, give them all a hug.
- If you have a dog or a cat or any cuddly pet go and stroke it.
- If there’s a tree or some long grass feel it with your hand.
If you have a pet (see below) count the number of times you stroke it in a day. Then count the number of times you touch your partner. If your dog or cat is getting more physical affection than your partner (or your children) there’s something wrong. You need to make sure the humans you’re close to get at least as much touching as your pet.
You see, we often forget that we, too, are animals and need to touch and be touched. Why should we have less of this wonderful tonic than a dog does? We cover our bodies completely with clothes most of the time, which already makes it difficult, and, on top of that, we’ve introduced dangerous social conventions. That we’ve now become afraid to touch one another is a disaster for oxytocin, happiness and longevity.
Improving your relationship
Of course, having a partner doesn’t automatically contribute to longevity. It’s the nature of the relationship that counts. Indeed, a bad relationship might possibly even contribute to various diseases and shorten both your lives. Love is a skill that, like any skill, has to be learned and then practised conscientiously. Here are 15 guidelines for a relationship that will enhance happiness, health and longevity for both of you:
- Guideline number 1: You accept your partner’s love. You don’t insist it has to be expressed in a particular way. You have to be free to express your love your way and your partner has to be free to do the same. Simply enjoy the love. Bathe in it. Be grateful for it, because it’s a wonderful thing.
- Guideline number 2: You accept the way your partner is. You don’t tell your partner how to dress or behave or what to think or, indeed, anything else. In other words, you don’t project your fantasies onto your partner.
- Guideline number 3: You accept your partner’s growth. You don’t try to keep your partner the way they were right back at the beginning of the relationship. You both have to be free to develop. In fact, learn to love change. Because if there was no change there could be no improvement. Would you, at, say, age 40, really want your partner to be the same as when you first met 20 years earlier? Not to know any more? Not to have acquired any more skills? Not to have more insight and wisdom?
- Guideline number 4: You accept that two people are different and always will be (especially if one is a man and the other a woman). You already love some of the differences. Learn to love all of them.
- Guideline number 5: You always remain curious about your partner. He or she is actually an inexhaustible mine. You’ll never run out of treasures as long as you keep digging new galleries.
- Guideline number 6: You always give support. This is very important for both sexes but especially for women who have a strong need to be able to talk about themselves and their problems. In one study, 41 per cent of women who suffered a ‘stressful life event’ became depressed if they were given only a low level of support by their partners but the figure fell to 10 per cent with a high level of support. Another study found that relationships in which partners react enthusiastically to one-another’s good news are the happiest – don’t be grudging or uninterested.
- Guideline number 7: You always build your partner up. Negative thoughts and emotions can be damaging and if you foster them in your partner – possibly as a way of gaining dominance in the relationship – you’ll end up destroying him or her. Don’t criticise and, above all, never make personal attacks.
- Guideline number 8: Talk, talk, talk. And when you talk, give all of your attention. Communicate, don’t sulk. As soon as there’s a problem, be willing to discuss it. One study found that talking to a woman is more meaningful than talking to a man. Both men and women reported that talking to a woman resulted in a conversation that was pleasanter, more intimate and – this is very important – with more self-disclosure. So, if you’re a man, learn to be meaningful.
- Guideline number 9: You don’t make comparisons. You don’t say or even think: ‘He earns more money than my partner.’ Or: ‘She’s more beautiful than my partner.’
- Guideline number 10: You don’t hold onto negative thoughts or emotions.
- Guideline number 11: You provide plenty of physical contact. As we saw above, oxytocin is essential to your health as well as the health of your relationship.
- Guideline number 12: You have plenty of sex. Sex is the source of several ‘happy chemicals.’ One study found that satisfaction with a relationship correlates very closely with frequency of intercourse minus the number of rows.
- Guideline number 13: You do something special together every day.
- Guideline number 14: You take care of your partner. It’s well known that, on average, women live longer than men. Various theories have been put forward. But it’s possible something as simple as caring could be part of the explanation. The female is the caring sex and it’s caring love that’s the most important.
- Guideline number 15: You merge with your partner. You think in terms of ‘us’ and not in terms of ‘you’ and ‘me.’ You think of your personal health as the product of your joint health. Every day you ‘send’ your mind inside your partner; you try to sense what your partner’s thinking and feeling. You develop a spiritual connection with your partner and with all of the universe (see Chapter 10).
Draw a line down the middle of some sheets of paper from top to bottom. On the left, make a list of all the differences you have with your partner. On the right, set out all the things that are puzzling about those differences but also all the things that are wonderful about them. Have your partner do the same. Then discuss what you’ve written.
If your partner has died
As far as longevity is concerned then, in the fullness of time, there are two ways to respond to the death of a partner. A study led by R.W. Bartop found the immune systems of men and women whose partners had recently died were functioning far below the normal level. A 1978 train crash in Australia which killed 26 men led psychiatrist Roger Barthrop to the discovery that their widow’s lymphocytes (part of the immune system) became less numerous and less active
Some people whose partners have died eventually go on to find new love with a new partner. Usually, those are the younger ones. Others prefer to live alone.
Whichever path is yours, the important thing from the point of view of longevity is that you continue to experience love.
If your partner has died that doesn’t mean, of course, that love has died. You can still love your partner, even if he or she is no longer physically present. Continue to think about your partner. Talk to your partner. Keep your reminders. Don’t let younger people convince you it isn’t healthy to behave that way. Quite frankly, it’s something younger people just can’t understand. So there’s really no point in listening to them. It isn’t unhealthy.
What’s unhealthy is to feel alone. With your memories you’re not alone. After the artist-poet and mystic William Blake died in 1827 his wife said he visited her for two or three hours every day, sitting in ‘his chair.’ She herself died four years later, calling out to him to say she was coming.
Relatives and friends
A close one-to-one relationship may be the most powerful of all but, of course, all relationships are beneficial. William Knaus and his team at the George Washington University School of Medicine analysed the treatment of more than 5,000 patients in intensive care in various hospitals throughout the USA and found the single most important factor in recovery was the degree of human contact between nurses and patients. Where there was hand-holding and reassurance the outcomes were good. Where there was no time for such ‘luxuries’ the outcome was poor. Millions of dollars worth of modern technology counted for less than old fashioned, free human warmth.
In one study by Dr David Spiegel of women whose breast cancers had spread, those who regularly attended a support group did better than those who didn’t.
If you’re not intimate with someone then, by definition, you’re separated from that person. If you’re not intimate with anybody then you’re lonely.
- Don’t wait for someone else to be friendly – be the first.
- Don’t wait for someone else to introduce an intimate subject – be the first.
- Don’t wait for someone else to make a personal disclosure – be the first.
- The more you give the more you get.
If you want to get on well with other people you have to push your happiness and your love ahead of you so they can easily see it.
You won’t be able to push that aura ahead of you if you’re a judgmental sort of person. Don’t approach others with a feeling of hostility or suspicion, with your positive emotions hidden away behind your back like some precious metal. Other people will sense it.
Remember, you can’t empathise fully if you’re harsh on people who are different to you. For example, if you’ve never smoked you’ll never understand someone who’s addicted to nicotine unless you seek to understand it non-judgementally. Nor, unless you’re open-minded, will you be able to relate to people from different social backgrounds, different cultures or different age groups. Obviously, you’ll widen your circle of friends if you can understand those differences.
- Be interested in other people.
- Be compassionate towards other people.
- Be responsive – use facial expressions and tone of voice.
- Trust people with small things and work up to big things – don’t distrust people without reason.
- Don’t be judgmental.
- Try to find something you agree with.
- If you disagree, mention the thing you agree with before mentioning the thing you disagree with.
Of course, you could just confine your friendships to people with exactly the same background and outlook. But you’ll be limiting your opportunities for happiness, if you do. And there’s one kind of difference most of us are anxious to bridge – that between the sexes.
‘I can put my hand out to my side day or night and he is always there. He has taught me to love, laugh and live again.’
Those are moving words, describing exactly the kind of relationship we all want. But they’re not the words of someone talking about their human partner. They’re the words of Allen Parton, talking about Endal, his Yellow Labrador Retriever. And Mr Parton has a lot more to say:
‘His unconditional love has healed so many of the hurts; his mischief making brought laughter into my saddest days and his zest for life has rubbed off on to me. He never judges me…’
It was a road accident in 1991 that put Mr Parton into a wheelchair. He had a wife and he had children and yet, even so, he was ‘stuck in the darkest soulless place a person can ever be.’ It took a dog, six years later, to pull him out.
And it’s not only emotional support that Endal provides. Trained by Canine Partners for Independence, the dog can do all kinds of practical things that can extend the capabilities of elderly as well as disabled people. Endal can respond to one hundred instructions, including operating buttons and switches, loading and unloading a washing machine and pulling the plug out of the bath. As if that’s not already incredible enough, Endal’s actions in 2001 made him famous. After Mr Parton was struck by a car and thrown from his wheelchair, Endal, got him into the recovery position, covered him with a blanket, brought a mobile phone and then went to a nearby hotel for help. The message is clear:
- If you don’t have anyone to love, or love you, get a pet.
And, of course, even if you do have a loving partner, family and friends there’s still room for a pet in your world.
Endal has certainly improved Allen Parton’s life, and quite probably extended it, but is there any evidence that pets generally – pets that don’t have that special training – can work that magic for everybody? In fact, there’s plenty. Numerous studies have shown that pets can:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol
- Improve psychological health
- Reduce visits to the doctor
- Reduce stress
- Aid recovery
In a famous study of heart attack victims, for example, a team at the University of Pennsylvania led by Erika Friedmann, showed that pet-owners were twice as likely to survive for a year compared with non-pet owners. The effects are so clear that many hospitals and hospices have animals that visit the patients. Surveys in Australia, Britain, Germany and the USA have all found health benefits from pet ownership.
What’s the mechanism? One of them is an animal’s ability to open the door to the natural world. Those living in cities are estranged from it, and that isn’t good. But probably the most important is oxytocin. Just as with a human partner, when you stroke an animal the level goes up, increasing in turn the ‘happy chemicals’ dopamine and serotonin. But setting the biochemistry aside, you can just say it’s love.
And the most important aspect of pet-love is that it doesn’t depend on Fido being the most beautiful dog, nor the most intelligent, nor the most useful, nor anything like that. And Fido’s love for you doesn’t depend on your looks either, nor your wealth, nor the size of your house, nor anything of that kind. Basically, you love Fido because he loves you. And he loves you because you love him. It’s unconditional love. And that’s what we all need.
Stories of the devotion of animals are legion. A terrier that remained for weeks by the body of its dead master in the Lake District in 1805 was commemorated in a painting by Landseer and in a poem by Wordsworth who recorded:
Yes, proof was plain that, since the day
When this ill-fated Traveller died,
The Dog had watched about the spot,
Or by his master’s side…
Pets have two more important qualities. Firstly, they have the ability to Â´seeÂ´ emotions – which is why a dog disappears the morning before an appointment at the vet or why a horse refuses to be caught when it needs to be given an injection. When you interact with animals you have to learn to get rid of your negative emotions – genuinely get rid of them – because animals can read you like a book. That’s how they survive. And when youÂ´ve done that, your relationships with people will improve.
The other is that a pet, particularly a dog or a horse, is also a doorway back into the Nature from which so many of us are now unhappily estranged (although we’ll probably never learn things like direction finding and earthquake prediction). I’ll have more to say about this in Chapter 11.
Of course, you can’t expect to get a pet today and feel instant benefits. You and your pet need to bond and that takes both time and an underlying feeling for a particular type of animal. Don’t forget, either, that pets can sometimes increase stress if they’re not properly trained to behave, if they turn out to be a burden, or if they, themselves, get ill. So you need to think very carefully about what pet will suit you.
Even if you have friends enough, and children, and relatives and a partner you should still consider having a pet. If you’re lonely, a pet is essential. What kind of pet is a matter for you. But a pet that lives in the house is going to be a more constant source of all those benefits than one that lives outside. If you don’t have any firm ideas, get a dog. Dogs became man’s best friend at least 100,000 years ago, are always ready for a good cuddle and form really meaningful relationships with their owners. They come in all shapes and sizes and one of them will be right for you. And there’s the bonus that taking Fido for a walk every day will improve your fitness.
If there’s no way you can have a pet, try riding. Horses can be very frightening and intimidating at first but once you get used to them you can enjoy something you can’t get from a dog or cat. You can enjoy being carried which, for some people, is a very special experience.
Remember: a pet is for life
Don’t forget that animals have to be properly looked after throughout their lives. If you’re not 100 per cent sure you’re able to do that then don’t get a pet.
On the other hand, don’t rule out a pet on the grounds that you’re elderly and may die first. If that’s your case, consider adopting an older cat or dog from a rescue centre. Then make firm arrangements for it to be taken care of should it outlive you.
How well connected are you?
As weÂ´ve seen, itÂ´s important for your health, happiness and longevity to be connected to other people and animals. HereÂ´s a little test so you can see how well youÂ´re doing.
- Are you living with a partner in a close and happy relationship?
- If not, do you live with someone else (parents, children, siblings etc.)?
- Have you got a pet with which you feel a special bond?
- Have you got family members living within half an hour?
- If not, do you regularly keep in touch by phone, e-mail or post?
- Do you visit family members at least once a week?
- Do you have friends you see regularly?
- Do you have a special friend with whom you can share problems?
- Do you socialise with colleagues from work?
- Do you have a good laugh with family and friends?
- Do you have a hobby that involves meeting people?
- Do you do any voluntary or charitable work that involves helping other people?
How did you get on? Mostly yes: youÂ´re extremely sociable and well connected with all the benefits that brings. Half yes, half no: youÂ´re moderately sociable but youÂ´d gain a lot if youÂ´d widen your circle. Mostly no: whether by choice or circumstance youÂ´re cut off and need to make a real effort to socialise more widely.
- Loving and being loved is vital for longevity.
- The committed relationship between two partners is the most powerful of all.
- Living alone is even more unhealthy for a man than a woman.
- In any relationship, itÂ´s vital to be supportive.
- If you feel unloved you suffer more stress.
- Oxytocin, a hormone thatÂ´s released when you touch someone you love, increases your sense of attachment and seems to play a role in living longer – so touch often.
- Acceptance is they key to successful relationships.
- Love can continue even after someone has died.
- DonÂ´t wait for someone else to be friendly – be the first.
- Pets can provide unconditional love and companionship.