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It Takes a Village to Raise a Centenarian

This Mediterranean island may hold the secret to longevity

By Jill Yanish

On Sardinia, people commonly live to 100. The island off the southern coast of Italy has 10 times as many centenarians as the U.S. and is one of the only places in the world where men live as long as women.
Many have studied Sardinia's population seeking the secret to longevity — including psychologist and journalist Susan Pinker. In her new book, The Village Effect, Pinker says social involvement is at the heart of a long and healthy life.
“Regular, in-person social contact is a more powerful predictor of how long we will live than anything else that is in our control,” Pinker says.

(MORE: Secrets From the Island Where People Forget to Die)
On Sardinia, villagers pull together to serve as caregivers and social support for the island's elderly population, making aging a communal affair.
This is quite different from the aging experience in the U.S., where there’s a senior loneliness epidemic
Next Avenue talked with Pinker about the secrets of Sardinians. Here are highlights:
Next Avenue: The title of Chapter Two is “It takes a village to raise a centenarian.” Can you describe the connection between the village analogy and longevity?
Pinker: The Village Effect is the metaphor I use for the type of social contact we all need to thrive and survive. One of the main reasons these villagers live so long relates to the epoxy-like nature of their social bonds. Residents age in place and are surrounded and cared for by a circle of extended family, friends, neighbors and people they know well into their 90s and 100s. Social isolation, a feature of aging in America, is just not possible there.

(MORE: How the Village Movement Can Help You Age in Place)
What can an individual do to have this village-like way of life?
It’s not necessary to move to Sardinia to get the benefits that rural Sardinians enjoy. You can build the Village Effect right where you live. The first step is to recognize the critical nature of face-to-face social contact, by choosing to live in a place where neighbors talk to each other. This is a more important assessment than how many parking spaces you have and the size of your apartment’s closets.
The second step is to incorporate social contact into your daily routine the way you would regular meals and exercise. Given that regular social contact — with diverse members of the community, as well as with intimate friends and family — is a stronger predictor of health and longevity than quitting smoking or losing weight, an emphasis on in-person contact every day should be everyone’s priority.
Are there any examples of this village model in the U.S. today?
The essential ingredient [of the village model] is what social scientists call social capital: how interwoven the community is, how much people participate in shared activities, how much they trust and interact with each other, how many of their friends and co-workers know each other. There is an effort to create the Village Effect by building neighborhoods from scratch. These are called co-housing communities, and they seem to be wonderful places to bring up children, especially for single parents, and healthy places to age in place.

(MORE: When You Want to Live Among Your Tribe)
How can people in midlife build or increase their social capital?
If you have a choice between emailing or seeing a colleague in your building, a neighbor down the street or a friend in person, go for the latter. You’ll not only get the cardiac benefit of walking down the hall or to a meeting place, you’ll get the hormonal boost of interacting in person.
Create a village of diverse relationships by joining a regular group activity that will expand your social set. You need more than a handful of close friends and family to be healthy and happy.
What’s the main takeaway message you hope readers get from your book?
We are a social species that has evolved for face-to-face interaction. Social contact combined with a sense of belonging is as critical, if not more important, to our health, happiness, learning and longevity as exercise and a good diet.

Jill Yanishwas formerly the associate editor for Next Avenue.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University and has written for various Twin Cities publications. Read More
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