Book Review

Living in Sandy Hill―good for your health

Christine Aubry

I   recently read the book Growing Young –How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, by Marta Zaraska, and felt compelled to share some good news with my neighbours: living in Sandy Hill is not only good for your health, it could extend your life!

The premise of Zaraska’s book is simple: ditch the diet and fitness fads, and focus instead on embracing loving relationships, kindness and optimism―the health and longevity benefits are the same (or more), and it’s just a much more pleasant way to live.

While I was not surprised by any of Zaraska’s claims, the extensive research she presents is fascinating, and the findings related to community made me even more thankful to live in Sandy Hill.

First, the study of the small rural Pennsylvania town of Roseto, where in the 1960s there was no heart disease in people under 65, something unheard of at the time in the country.

After researchers ruled out genes and diet (in fact, Rosetans loved sugar and fatty meat, many were obese and smoked, and the men worked long hours in physically demanding jobs), they found the probable cause for Roseto’s strong population health was social―families were strong and united, elders were respected, neighbours looked after each other, and everyone was involved in and cared for the neighbourhood.

What would happen if this way of life was lost? Well, unfortunately it was. By the end of the 1970s Roseto’s population health became the same as that of any other U.S. town.

What researchers refer to as “the Roseto effect” has since been found in numerous other studies. Zaraska explains that living in a caring community boosts our “social neuropeptides”―the hormones that make us happy, calm, and friendlier―which directly affects our physical health by lessening our risk of heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and the list goes on.

Essentially, positive social integration can contribute to a reduction in mortality of up to 65 percent (this figure also includes a good marriage). If you lived isolated in the suburbs, you would need to maintain ALL of the other healthy lifestyle attributes (healthy eating, physical activity, no smoking, moderate drinking) to get the same longevity benefits.

More recently, researchers have turned to Japan (currently the nation boasting the longest life span for both men and women), and in particular, the mountain villages of Nagano, which the author visited to see for herself.

What she found is that while a healthy diet is embraced (they do eat more than our North American daily recommended intake of vegetables), the villages’ social cohesion and strong sense of community was most striking.

Everyone was involved in making their neighbourhood a good place to live, from organizing park clean-ups and street festivals, to exercising and patrolling the streets against crime together. In fact, across Japan, there is “we” culture. Zaraska points out that 93 percent of Japanese residents say their neighbourhood has a neighbourhood association and 94% of residents belong to it. And there is a Japanese word for what translates as “the five-house rule”: know your neighbours in the five houses that surround you.

Here in North America, we are only just catching on. There is a growing movement called “placemaking”―encouraging the reinvention of public places to promote a strong sense of community. This means in our communities we have places to walk to, parks, open gyms, art venues, street markets, pop-up gardens. Residents shop in local stores and chat with neighbours, whom they know by name and can call on to borrow a snow blower. Sound familiar?

This book is filled with statistics, easy-to-understand science, and some great one-liners, including my favourite: “A life worth living―something that no amount of kale or goji berries can give you.”

I highly recommend you put this gem on your holiday wish-list. Or better yet, gift it to a neighbour; it could help you both live longer.