A few months ago I published an article which posed this question: "Are Women Better at Aging Than Men?," generating a lot of debate and discussion.
I referenced an article by Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Yale professor of psychology, that was published in Psychology Today and which seemed to underscore my belief that women's natural strengths--coping skills, empathy, ability to listen, patience, desire to create and sustain strong connections and bonds with others--help them to tackle new problems and situations that arise as they age, and also give them the courage to pursue new paths. In the article, I asked:
Do women embrace aging better than men? Are we happier with our lives and are we better equipped to handle the myriad changes than they are? Are we better at digging deeper into our very core to extract our inner resources for what we truly need as we get older?
The answer, according to Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema's research is "yes." But, there's more to the story.
Amazingly enough, not only do these skills help us to age with a greater sense of confidence, happiness and peace, but they can also extend our lives.
Conventional wisdom says that biology is the critical factor in longevity. If your parents lived to be 85, you probably will, too. Not necessarily, say the authors of the The Longevity Project, a new book that is based on research conducted over a span of eighty years. In a recent interview, the authors said, "Genes constitute about one-third of the factors leading to long life. The other two-thirds have to do with lifestyles and chance."
Through my writing and lectures, I urge people to focus on the importance of taking control of health and lifestyle, especially as we age (stop smoking, don't bask in the sun, move your body, eat well, get the essential health checks, and so on), but, based on the research, there are many other factors that contribute to longer life as well--a strong marriage, coming from a home with parents who stayed married, and being conscientious throughout ones life--among others. However, according to authors Drs. Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin:
the number one strongest social predictor of long life is a strong social network.
There is much research that supports the premise that women live longer than men, and the main reason, according to the authors, is that women tend to put a greater amount of time, energy and attention to creating and maintaining connections to others throughout their lives.
Women thrive on the building and nourishing of friendships, and look upon them as an integral part of our ongoing support system, especially when going through tough times (dealing with aging parents, illness, death, loss of job). And, as so many studies and anecdotal evidence have shown, women, once they reach midlife, are more confident in their own personal power and are willing to tap into that power to not only help themselves, but to help others. The extraordinary thing is we don't even have to know the other women personally to make and feel a connection.
My network of women friends on websites, Facebook, and other social media, has grown exponentially because I've been reaching out to them, and they've been reaching out to me. I've learned so much from all of them, and they continue to enlighten, motivate and engage me, every day. It's no surprise that Facebook's (and other social media's) fastest growing segment in the United States is women over 50. Many use social media to kick-start their social lives after a divorce or being widowed, or network for business opportunities, but the majority of women over 50 are more interested in connecting with other women to encourage, support, applaud and learn.
It's not just through social media, however, that women excel at connecting. Natural caregivers, women have always embraced the challenge of threading ourselves to our work, families, friends, and communities, creating strong and lasting bonds as we forge ahead in life. And, as it turns out, a strong connection to your network of friends has a positive impact on health, which no doubt adds to ones longevity. Last week, a friend sent me this email:
“Subject: Schmoozing With Your Girlfriends is Good For Your Health!
I just finished taking an evening class at Stanford. The last lecture was on the mind-body connection-the relationship between stress and disease. The speaker (head of psychiatry at Stanford) said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends. At first everyone laughed, but he was serious.
Women connect with each other differently and provide support systems that help each other to deal with stress and difficult life experiences. Physically this quality "girlfriend time" helps us to create more serotonin-a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well-being. Women share feelings whereas men often form relationships around activities. They rarely sit down with a buddy and talk about how they feel about certain things or how their personal lives are going. Jobs? Yes. Sports? Yes. Cars? Yes. Fishing, hunting, golf? Yes. But their feelings? Rarely. Women do it all of the time. We share from our souls with our sisters/mothers, and evidently that is very good for our health. He said that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym.
There's a tendency to think that when we are "exercising" we are doing something good for our bodies, but when we are hanging out with friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged-not true. In fact, he said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking! So every time you hang out to schmooze with a gal pal, just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for doing something good for your health!
The message is simple:
Women: we have a remarkable ability to connect, engage, share and maintain solid networks and relationships throughout our lives. This is our greatest strength. It is a true source of our power as we age, and now we know it is also a source of our longevity.
Men: Live like women, or at least, stay closely connected to us. It could add years to your life.
Barbara Hannah Grufferman is a writer, blogger and the author of “The Best of Everything After 50.”