I recently received a call from a friend inquiring if the newspaper would be interested in a story about seven men who have been friends for 76 years and have been meeting monthly for decades. A surprise party was planned for them with invitations to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I initially recommended that she contact the features editor and hung up the phone. And then I gave her question a second thought — there’s a column here. I called back and asked if I could be invited. The answer was, “Of course.”
The gathering of these men and about 60 of their collective offspring was joyous, noisy and emotional. The men have been together since they were 8 years old, attending the same school with the same teachers. They all were good in sports, liked movies and served in the Navy. They even went to the Navy recruitment center together. Six out of seven are married to their original wives, who were given credit for nurturing these long relationships.
“These friends are the brothers I never had,” Ralph Cohen said.
One of the wives commented, with tears in her eyes, “When one of them hurts, they all hurt.”
Leon Levy, owner of a hair salon in Redondo Beach for more than 50 years and still working, said that when they get together, they talk about old times and politics.
And there was no shortage of humor at the party. When it comes to relationships, Levy said, “I’ve been married for 62 years; 61 have been spent in counseling.”
A grandson noted his grandfather is never boring and is always loving, positive and caring. Love was in the air.
The relationship between being socially connected and longevity is an established area of research. Here are some findings:
• Having close relationships increases one’s life span at the same rate as quitting smoking.
• The risk of dying for people who are socially isolated is equal to the death rate caused by obesity and physical inactivity.
• Psychologists estimate that the chance of dying over a 10-year period increases between 10 to 50 percent if you live alone or have a few friends compared to those with more friends and family.
• People who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to infections and have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes compared to those with more social connections.
• Friends more than family are likely to increase one’s longevity, according to an Australian longitudinal study. In contrast, another study found that frequent contact with family members was the most important factor in helping older adults avoid disabilities and as well as increase their longevity.
• Immune systems of those with friends work better than those with no or limited social connections.
• Friendships among men improve their physical condition and well-being, increase their sense of belonging and purpose, boost happiness, reduce stress and improve self-worth as well as steer them away from unhealthy lifestyles.
Why do friendships affect how long we live? Some say these relationships encourage people to take better care of themselves, such as cutting down on smoking and drinking and getting early medical treatment for potential serious problems. Others suggest that friendships help older adults cope with difficult situations and provide a positive effect on their mood and self-esteem. Yet others have found friendships stimulate an improved immune system.
“The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” by Dan Buettner (National Geographic, $8) is a study of long-lived healthy people that attests to the importance of relationships.
In Okinawa, a characteristic of the Japanese island’s long-lived people is maintaining strong family ties and close groups of friends called moais. Moai roughly means meeting for a common purpose. Originally it was a way that villages found financial support, pooling their money for needed capital or to buy land. Today that notion is a social support network, a ritual for companionship. Some moais in Okinawa meet every day.
Today, the average American has only two close friends, an unlikely formula for living a long life.
This special celebration and research affirm that close and caring relationships not only enhance the quality of our lives, but play a role in how long we live. A quote by John Lennon seems to fit. “Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.”
Sounds good to me.
This article was written by our friend Helen Dennis and posted in the Los Angeles Daily News.
About the Author:
Helen Dennis is nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and retirement with academic, corporate and non profit experience. She has received numerous awards for her university teaching at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center and for her contributions to the field of aging and the community. Editor of two books, author of over 50 articles, frequent speaker and weekly columnist on Successful Aging for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, she has assisted over 10,000 employees to prepare for the non-financial aspects of their retirement. In her volunteer life, she has served as president of five nonprofit organizations. Fully engaged in the field of aging, she was a delegate to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging and is co-author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, “Project Renewment®: The First Retirement Model for Career Women.” Helen has extensive experience with the media including Prime Time, NPR, network news, the Wall Street Journal, Sacramento Bee and Christian Science Monitor. She recently was the recipient of the excellence in literary arts award from the Torrance Cultural Arts Commission.