ONC Book Club: Growing Young
We heard about Marta Zaraska’s book, Growing Young, several months ago and were intrigued. The subtitle, How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, sealed the deal: we snatched a copy up and began reading.
The book is what you might imagine. Science writer and researcher Zaraska writes about the latest research related to aging well and achieving the goal (if that’s one’s goal) of living to 100. Even if that isn’t your goal, living well into the senior years is certainly a rosy picture for just about anyone, and Zaraska’s research explores not only how to get to 100 but how to get there in good health. Perhaps the biggest point Zaraska makes is that good health isn’t strictly defined as physical fitness or lack of disease.
Health extends far beyond the typical measurements Americans often focus on: blood pressure, cognitive function or BMI. Health is also, according to Zaraska’s research, about friendship, community, connection and purpose.
Growing Young is a light, easy dive into what makes us healthy all around. The book goes beyond how many fruits and vegetables to eat each day and explores how marriage impacts wellness, if meditation is really ‘worth it’ (it is) and how people in other countries around the world compare with Americans in not only the race to 100 but the quality of the ride to get there.
Here are 10 Things About Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100:
1. Throughout the book, Zaraska focuses on relationships as a means to achieving good health. In the introduction, she writes, “Apart from shunning tobacco, investing in a thriving social life might be the best thing you could do for your longevity. Consider the numbers. Studies show that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 percent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower mortality risk by 23 and 33 percent” (p. 3). Those are compelling numbers.
2. Growing Young explores the link between stress (both good and bad) and health. Zaraska writes about the impact of stress on both our mental and physical health. You’ll learn about the vagus nerve, how stress shrinks your brain, the power of heart rate variability (HRV) and the stress/gut link.
3. If you have ever wondered about the role of neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine), Zaraska gives a readable, easy-to-understand explanation of how our actions and behaviors light up certain neurotransmitters and what that means for our health. Zaraska writes, “While abundant serotonin causes us to be friendly, social isolation makes the levels of the neurotransmitter plummet” (p. 70). Zaraska helps readers understand these connections and makes a strong case for the health benefits of relationships, community and connection while explaining the science behind these feel-good hormones.
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4. If you’ve heard about the ‘obesity paradox’ and want to learn more, see page 81. Zaraska writes, “Not only does excess weight shorten lives less than does social isolation, but in certain circumstances, it may not even shorten lives at all.” For anyone who is struggling to manage a restrictive 2021 New Year New You diet, you might want to read what Growing Young has to say about weight loss, diet and the impact it has on longevity.
5. In another exploration of supposed good health advice, Zaraska writes about the dangers of supplements (including liver failure) and the cost of spending our hard-earned money on things that don’t actually support our health.
6. Throughout the book, Zaraska writes about the issue of loneliness, a recurring theme when it comes to ill health. In Chapter 5, The Gnawing Parasite of Loneliness, she writes, “A similar picture emerged from other studies, including those using functional magnetic resonance imaging: loneliness makes us fixate on social threats” (p. 117). It turns out, isolation is a chicken-and-egg situation. When we are isolated, we see others as more threatening, meaning we remain more isolated. While family is incredibly important, Zaraska also points out the power of friendships. She writes, “The impact of friendships on longevity is so large that in many studies it overshadows the impact of how often you meet with your relatives (not counting your spouse or a twin, if you have one)” (p. 134).
7. An interesting finding of Zaraska’s research is the connection between health and synchronicity. It will make you want to sign up for yoga classes (which have heaps of health benefits) or group exercise classes in a heartbeat. There is something to moving in sync with others that our bodies and brains seem to love.
8. Caregiving, stress and how we help others is often addressed throughout Growing Young. Zaraska writes about the benefits of caregiving while also addressing the stress many caregivers face. For caregivers, Chapter 8, Helping Others Helps Your Health, will be a good read.
9. Are you a half-glass-full kind of person or a glass-half-empty? It turns out personality plays a part in longevity, and people who feel joy, have found meaning and purpose in their lives and avoid worry, rumination or other negative emotions live longest. And if you think your personality is set in stone, you’ll want to read Chapter 9, Why Personality and Emotions Matter for Longevity.
10. Growing Young ends with a deep-dive into Japanese culture and why the Japanese are the oldest (and often healthiest) people in the world. Not shockingly (if you’ve read the rest of the book), Japanese wellness comes down to more than fermented food and fresh vegetables. Zaraska dives into the research on the island-nation’s focus on meaning and purpose (they even have a word for it: ikigai), community and connection. Japanese seniors continue working far longer than seniors in other parts of the world (though they do find less demanding and more relaxing jobs as second careers). They also participate in meditative activities like tea ceremonies and flower arranging. These types of mindful activities have been shown to be quite beneficial to the brain and overall wellness.
Jeeves wants you all to know that gives Growing Young a full two-paws-up. He’s out back right now in a meditative pose, never judging his progress, only focusing on the present moment and preparing for his leaf-arranging class later this evening.
In all seriousness, Growing Young is a strong read. Zaraska’s writing is light enough to make the science palatable for those of us who didn’t major in genetics or biology. The information is presented with reflection and enough caveats to encourage thoughtful dissection. Overall, Growing Young will make you consider your own lifestyle and how small tweaks to your daily schedule may have sizable impacts on your longevity.