A recently published study from Harvard, carried out since prior to the Second World War, suggests that the one over-riding factor which contributes to happiness and health in later life is connection with other people. Those subjects who were most satisfied with their lives at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. This included reduced levels of both mental and physical decline. This doesn’t mean that close connections make life pain-free but they seem to make it more bearable. The study seems to have done its best to take into account a range of other factors which we might assume would also have an impact, including socio-economic circumstances, education and, to some extent, lifestyle factors.
Does this surprise anyone? Perhaps not. We probably all have our own experiences of loneliness and its effect on our levels of self-care, if only for short periods. Extend that over a matter of years and you might be able to imagine the result, as chronic ill health compounds the problem by reducing our ability to socialise.
However, I was unable to find details of the dietary assessment carried out on the study subjects. Gaining an accurate diet history is notoriously tricky even in far smaller studies, due to a range of factors including lack of reliable methodology, poor recall and a sense of shame in reporting what respondents consider to be an unhealthy diet. So, we can’t rule out the possible additional role of diet in explaining the differences in longterm health and happiness.
It seems to me that the relationship between our health, our connections with others and our eating are inextricably linked.
Observational study results repeatedly suggest that, in general (not necessarily for every individual), the typical Mediterranean diet confers a longer, healthier life. It seems to contain those essential nutrients for good health that we’ve all heard about. But if we picture that quintessential Mediterranean meal scene around a long table outside, laden with fresh food and gallons of olive oil and yet only focus on the food, we’re maybe forgetting the secret ingredient. You’ve guessed it – eating in company. If my experience of village life in Mallorca is anything to go by, any excuse for eating together is enthusiastically exploited and everyone turns up with a contribution; a jar of home pickled capers or a dozen freshly-laid eggs with chicken poo and feathers still attached.
The other inevitable perk of eating together is an increase in variety. I remember my mother, who lived alone, bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t buy half a cabbage or cauliflower at the supermarket. A whole one would never get eaten and she was never one to waste. So, inevitably, her dietary variety and its overall quality probably suffered. And my husband, who is admittedly the main cook in the house, is convinced that when he’s away I live on baked beans on toast (spot the Brit!). Whilst this might not be entirely true (enormous vats of lentil curry seem to figure quite heavily) my diet is certainly less varied, and I’m a dietitian!
Greater dietary variety not only means less risk of an insufficient intake of any nutrient but, what’s more, our gut microbes love variety. The range of microbes inhabiting our gut consequently expands and this seems to be closely related to better health. (Yet, another reason for not over-restricting our diets by removing whole food groups unnecessarily but more on that in the future.)
The Harvard study also emphasised that the quality of relationships triumphed over quantity and we can pretty safely say that the same goes for food. For those who live in fresh food deserts such as large housing estates or the less mobile who are reliant on the corner shop for their food, quality food is not easy to come by, but don’t get me started on health inequalities! (However, if you are interested, click on the link for a quick video about the 10 year follow up to the Marmot Review into health inequalities in the UK. It makes for uncomfortable watching and no doubt reflects what is happening in many countries.) https://www.health.org.uk/videos/watch-the-marmot-review-10-years-on
And finally, something the study didn’t look at was the subjects’ relationship with Nature i.e. rural vs urban living, ability to cultivate plants, especially edible ones. Perhaps this is because the potential negative effect of an ever-growing distance from Nature and the origin of our food wasn’t a consideration when the study was launched. However, there is now a rising awareness that this disconnect due to eating on the run, at the desk, out of packets etc is unsustainable both for our and the planet’s health.
So, what am I saying? I can’t preach here in my little piece of heaven with a soon-to-be-dug veg patch, live-in chef and ‘high quality’ connections with friends and family. But I’m sure I can do a lot better when it comes to looking out for those who might be eating alone and taking care of the earth around me.
Health, eating and connections (with other humans and with Nature) – They’re all joined up.