Live Long and Prosper the Mammalian Way

The second you finish reading this post, you need to get off your computer or phone or tablet or whatever and go seek out some meaningful human contact. Why? Because (of course) I've been reading a new book:

I think I highlighted the whole first third of the thing. If I had to pick a thesis sentence, it would be this:

Research shows that playing cards once a week or meeting friends every Wednesday night at Starbucks adds as many years to our lives as taking beta blockers or quitting a pack-a-day smoking habit.

Meaning, if your New Year's resolution was to quit smoking, hooray, but you'd get even better payoff if you made and invested weekly time in a couple friends! Or hung out in the flesh with a few family members.

And as for worrying about which foods and environmental toxins causes cancer or Alzheimer's, consider these findings:

More and more proof is emerging that in many cases, full social lives can slow down, if not halt, an existing cancer's progress.

Socially isolated female lab rats developed eighty-four times as many breast cancer tumors as female rats who lived in groups. Eighty-four times! [Her emphasis.]

In 2004 a Swedish epidemiologist discovered the lowest rate of dementia in people with extensive social networks. 

Author and psychologist Pinker cites all kinds of studies, many familiar to me from other brain books, and she presents her information in the most accessible way. How does face-to-face contact work its magic? It lowers "physiological stress responses, which in turn helps the body fight infection and inflammation." And this magic begins when we're babies. Babies who get lots of skin-to-skin contact gain weight faster, generate more new neurons, and feel half as much pain if they've undergone a painful medical procedure. The magic extends to the new mom, who suffers lower postpartum depression rates, stress levels, and boosts her own learning and memory. Pinker follows the benefits of close connection from babyhood through adolescence into old age. A super worthwhile read.

So supposing you're not well-connected--at least not with people you see regularly face to face. The irony is, you're not alone. One-third of middle-aged Americans (between 45-49) say they have no one to confide in. One quarter of American men over 75 now live alone, while half of their female counterparts do! And while Americans boasted a  average of three confidants in 1985, by 2004 we were down to fewer than two. Yes, we're spending 520 billion minutes per day online, and lots of those on "social media," but we're less connected than ever, and it's taking a toll on our health and longevity. Loneliness "exaggerates the inflammation and reactivity to stress that are linked to heart disease" and "drives up the cortisol and blood pressure levels that damage the internal organs." Super bummer.

The cure, however, is much more do-able than cutting out carbs or working out five times a week (both of which would finally yield less benefit). The cure is getting together regularly with a few other people. Building the face-to-face social network that keeps us alive. Pinker mentions people who attend church or synagogue, not for the religion of it (though that has proven psychological benefits as well), but for the company of it. Heck, maybe the grown kids should live in your basement and grandma in the attic!

After reading this book I--ahem--texted two friends to remind them that we were going to get together for tea or a walk. I also had lunch with another friend for a game of Scrabble and planning a joint classroom activity. And lest you think this post is solely about saving your life through camaraderie, rather than food, I here include a recipe that the Scrabble friend was making for dinner. Just as Pinker points out, we catch ideas and behaviors (for good or ill) from our close contacts, and, sure enough, I went home and made the exact same dish for our own dinner.

Am I a food photographer, or what? (Forgot to take a pic until half-eaten.)

Tortilla Pie
1 c leftover cooked turkey or chicken
1 can of beans, drained
1 c of frozen corn
1 c of salsa
8 ozs of tomato sauce
2 c grated cheese
1/2 c fresh cilantro
2 scallions, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin

4 large (10-in) flour tortillas

Preheat the oven to 450F. Combine all the ingredients, except the tortillas. 

In a large skillet, fry each tortilla in some butter or oil or bacon fat until puffed and golden on each side (about one minute).

On a rimmed cookie sheet or other large enough pan, layer one tortilla and 1-1/3 c filling. Repeat layers until you run out. Bake 12-15 minutes until heated.

Serves 4.

As I wrote my friend afterward, Tortilla Pie was a little hard to serve (we resorted to kitchen shears to cut it up), but it sure was tasty.

This New Year's, let's resolve to replace two hours of social media time with actual social time. And if we get together to eat better or walk together to do it, so much the better!