“I wish people would push themselves to always go out,” she says.
Through her work in longevity research on Okinawa, a Japanese island home to some of the longest-living people in the world (aka one of the “Blue Zones”), Burnette has learned just how big of a role social connection plays in our health. “I always try to tell people that the secret to longevity is not food and exercise,” she says. “It’s social connection.” (And this is coming from someone who literally founded an Okinawan health food company.)
When people hear that Burnette works in longevity, she says they typically have questions for her about what to eat. And she’ll tell them about the Okinawan diet filled with what might be the healthiest carb (purple sweet potato), plenty of green vegetables, tofu made with mineral-rich ocean water, and only unrefined brown sugar in desserts.
But Burnette points out that throughout all the Blue Zones, the food is healthy, yes, but a more important factor is that people eat that food together. “They’re eating in a group, or with their families,” she says. “They always have someone with them, eating with them, joking with them, laughing with them, taking care of them.”
Research has shown that having strong community ties can directly improve our physical health. "Many studies have shown lower rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and possibly even cancer for people with lots of friends and loving relationships in their lives," Richard Honaker, MD, a family medicine physician and chief medical advisor for Your Doctors Online, previously told Well+Good.
Okinawan practices that support social connection and longevity
An active social life can also lead to what’s known in Okinawa as “ikigai,” or the will to live. Burnette believes this mentality is an absolutely essential ingredient to longevity. Yet, it’s woefully overlooked because it’s so subjective, which makes it difficult for researchers to definitively study and put hard numbers behind.
But Burnette explains the link this way: In most cultures, as someone gets older, “they lose their standing in society, or they feel like they don't have a purpose. Their family doesn't come around to visit them anymore…people start dying around them, so they lose those social connections and then in turn lose the will to live.”
One way that Okinawans have traditionally protected against this dangerous spiral is through the moai, a custom where close groups of friends get together monthly to eat, drink (yes, including alcohol), connect, and exchange money—they regularly pool their funds when someone in their moai needs the help. “It’s a support system,” explains Burnette. “Because they do this, they're always socializing, they’re always helping.”
The case for prioritizing your social life
Meanwhile in the United States, the Surgeon General recently released a report that loneliness has reached epidemic levels—with one stat pointing out that a lack of social connection can increase the risk of premature death by about as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (!). “Loneliness kills people far faster than they think,” says Burnette.
Her advice if you're feeling isolated? Build some social momentum.
Burnette herself is guilty of one of the biggest things you’re not supposed to do: live alone. (Traditional older Okinawans either live with their families, or at least close by, or near lots of friends: “All the old ladies live in the same neighborhood,” she says.) Burnette knows firsthand how spending a day by yourself can easily lead to two days by yourself, and build into a temptation to cancel all your plans. “Push yourself to get out of the house,” she says. “Talk to people, and feel the friendliness.”
That advice remains true even if you’re meeting up with someone who’s not necessarily your favorite person, Burnette adds. “People need to realize that, as annoying as your father, mother, partner, children may be, you know, you get frustrated sometimes, you're angry or fight, but you gotta realize, we really need each other,” she says. “I’m not trying to be cheesy, but love is important.”
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