Written by Heather Johnson, RN
Resource Nurse, Empira
Would you agree that we live in a world consumed by convenience and technology?
With a global population nearing 7.7 billion people, one would like to think that there would be no loneliness, no lack of human contact and certainly plenty of opportunities for social connectedness in our world. Yet, social isolation, loneliness and lack of social connections are the stark reality for many, especially older adults in the United States.
Recently, in an article that I read, an 80-year-old woman refers to herself and those in her age group, as glass people. She explains that she feels invisible even though she resides in a senior apartment building and is constantly surrounded by others. She shared that, even in a complex that brings people in close proximities to each other, there is a lack of social connection, a nonexistent sense of community and a stigma about productivity in elders. She’s not alone in her thinking.
Social connectedness is defined as the feeling that you belong to a group and generally feeling very close to other people. In fact, scientific evidence strongly suggests that social connectedness is a core psychological need, which is essential to feeling satisfied with your life. As humans, we have a drive to connect with others, it’s embedded within our DNA and it begins at birth with our connection to those who cared for us. This same relationship exists throughout our lifespan. Studies often conclude that when a person is well cared for as a child they are more likely to have healthy and happy relationships as they get older.
In recent months, I have been researching more and more about the multiple blue zones that exist across the globe. Blue zones are areas identified by experts as having environments and traditions that support one in living a much longer and happier life. Five such zones are identified and they include:
- Okinawa (Japan)
- Sardinia (Greece)
- Nicoya (Costa Rica)
- Icaria (Greece)
- Loma Linda, California (USA)
Teams of experts have found nine common denominators, often referred to as the power of nine, among blue zones and they include the following:
- Move naturally: People live in environments that nudge them to move
- Purpose: In Japan it’s known as “Ikigai” which translates to why I wake up in the morning
- Down shift: Taking time each day to slow down (praying, meditating, resting)
- 80% rule: In Japan this is known as “hara hachi bu” which means to stop eating when you feel your stomach is 80% full
- Plant slant: Beans and plant sources are the cornerstone of your daily diet
- Wine at 5pm: Drinking 1-2 glasses per day with friends and/or with food
- Belong: Be a part of a faith-based community or organization
- Loved ones first: Families are put first and a priority in one’s life, invest time with your partner and time with children
- Right tribe: Being part of a group of 5 or more people that are committed to one another for life, cultivating a strong social network, this group is known a your moai
Do you notice that four of the nine definitely involve social connectedness?
Elders in Okinawa, Japan, one of the original blue zones longevity hotspots, live extraordinarily better and longer lives than almost anyone else in the world. Moai, one of their longevity traditions are social support groups that start in childhood and extend into the 100s. This term originated hundreds of years ago as a means of a village’s financial support system. Originally, moais were formed to pool the resources of an entire village for projects or public works. If an individual needed financial resources to buy land or take care of an emergency, the only way was to pool money locally. Traditionally, these groups of five or more children were brought together with the expectation that they would be committed to one another for life. Today this idea has expanded to become more of a social support network, a cultural tradition for built-in companionship and is often known as one’s “second family.”
Half of the Okinawans population still participates in the moai traditions and some belong to more than one. Statistics show that when people share similar values, healthy habits and life goals, they are much more likely to experience less stress, are happier and live longer. The average life expectancy in Japan is 86.3 years of age, while here in the United States; average life expectancy is 78.9 years of age.
What can we learn from Japan?
Research and life stories confirm the value of being socially connected. Take inventory of your life for social connectedness. Take notice of the social connectedness of those you care for and about, no matter what age. Understand and appreciate that a person can still feel lonely, useless and like a glass person in a crowd. Then take measures to enhance those lives by helping to find meaningful ways to really connect.
Blue Zones: retrieved from bluezones.com on January 4, 2020
Buettner, D.B., (2012). The blue zones (2nd edition): 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest. National Geographic Partners LLS.
Weil, A., (2005). Healthy aging: A lifelong guide to your physical and spiritual well-being. Knopf.