There is a fountain of youth.
Source: Abraham Flores/Unsplash
The illustrious 80-year-old Harvard Grant and Glueck study, begun in 1942, is the longest ongoing study of health and happiness. As you might easily guess, it has employed several generations of researchers. Over its eight decades of data-gathering, the study has meticulously tracked the physical and emotional well-being of its 268 participants. And, perhaps not surprisingly, its most consistent finding is that having a healthy intimate relationship delays the onset and/or buffers against a broad range of disease processes and thus promotes our health and longevity.
These findings are entirely consistent with other decades-old research, and more recent studies that point to the physical and psychological health benefits through stable, satisfying close relationships. Related studies on the aging process and longevity, likewise, applaud good relationships as enhancing our health and extending our lives.
Immortal Pond Scum
So, how do healthy intimate relationships prolong our lives? A Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist, Elizabeth Blackwell, from the University of California at San Francisco, may have found a piece of the puzzle with her work on, of all things, pond scum—or technically, the unicellular organism called tetrahymena. Quite literally, tetrahymena seem to have found the fountain of youth—their cells divide indefinitely. In short, they are immortal. The only way tetrahymena die is if something kills them: there is no growing old and dying for this single-cell creature.
Their secret: the telomere. The telomere, found in a wide range of species including humans, is described as a DNA protein cap fixed to the tips of chromosomes that “bundles” our genes. Figuratively, it has been likened to the plastic end-piece of a shoelace. Like the plastic tip of a shoelace, the telomere stops the ends of chromosomes from fraying or sticking to each other. Most importantly, the telomere also plays a central role in cell division by making sure our DNA is properly copied as cells divide, a process you may remember from biology called mitosis.
Blackburn and others have hypothesized the longer the length of the telomere, the more times the cell is able to divide, and the more times it divides, the longer the life of the cell. Interestingly, some researchers have said the length of our lives is determined not by a non-specific, vague, or ill-defined aging process with its accompanying diseases but rather by the number of times our cells divide. In other words, the “mitotic clock” ticks by cell division. What, then, keeps our telomeres ticking?
Long and Happy Telomeres
Like a dutiful sentinel, an enzyme called telomerase actively protects the telomere by preserving its length. However, in humans, the protective ability of telomerase is adversely affected by factors that stress it—chiefly, environmental factors, psychological disorders, and relationship distress. Fortunately, a growing body of evidence strongly suggests that positive lifestyle factors, especially secure and stable relationships, preserve the length of the telomere by reducing psychological stress, thereby safeguarding the protective function of telomerase itself, and in turn, the telomere. In brief, healthy relationships can protect the telomere and extend the quality and the length of our lives.
Isolation Kills But Connection Heals
Zeroing in from the opposite angle, findings from the new hybrid science of psychocardiology have shown the damaging impact of social isolation on our cardiovascular system. One study found that isolation’s effects have a significantly negative impact on the cardiovascular system equatable to smoking a pack of cigarettes daily. Sadly, and alarmingly, isolation and loneliness deliver a powerful punch—an assault on our physical health that increases the probability of premature death and disease by a whopping 200% to 500%, according to several studies.
Happily, on the other hand, close relationships are the universal antidote to the emptiness and desolation of social isolation and its adverse physical impact. For instance, in good relationships, we feel safe because we are heard, and when heard, we are “seen” in a way that connects us to others and deeply affirms us personally. Dean Ornish, a prestigious scientist and award-winning cardiologist, describes this positive emotional experience as, “Opening our hearts (literally) in a way that our bodies need to vibrate and resonate.”
In fact, partners in healthy relationships who feel loved show significantly less cardiovascular disease—less blockage in the arteries of their hearts, according to a Yale study. While traditional risk factors like poor diet, high blood pressure, diabetes, and lack of exercise play an important role in cardiac disorders, these heart-threatening villains are significantly moderated when we’re comfortably and securely nested in our loving relationships.
The Elixir of Closeness
It seems abundantly clear that as a species, we are designed to thrive optimally—both physically and emotionally—in the warm, reassuring embrace of our closest relationships. Moreover, learning to improve the quality of our relationships may be one of the best, if not the best thing, we can do for a healthy, happy, and long life.
Ask yourself: How well-connected am I to my partner, my family, and my friends? Who am I closest to, and why, and how do I achieve and sustain this closeness? How can I improve the quality of my connection to my significant other(s)?
Is there a “how-to manual”?