Social Correlates of Longevity—Part II

When we think about things we can do to have longer, healthier lives, it’s the metabolism that comes to mind—diet, exercise, supplements.  It’s a surprising fact that (at least until the next generation of anti-aging technology becomes available) the most effective things we can do are not just psychological—they’re social.  Perhaps because we were raised in the most pathologically individualistic culture in the history of humanity, this seems hard to take in.  The message is to embed in your community and your family, to actualize your creative potential, to love the people around you, to celebrate life and connect, only connect*.

Philosophers from Kant to Buber like to distinguish two ways that people may relate to one another.  One is utilitarian, using the person to help you make money or obtain something else that you want.  This kind of relationship needn’t be sinister.  There can be cooperation and mutual benefit, but the relationship is a calculated investment for personal gain.  The second kind of relationship is a core of human friendship or love or companionship or empathy that we value for its own sake, independent of whether we can get anything out of it.

Kant (paraphrased by Popper) said, “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.”  Buber said, “If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not…He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world;…but with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.”

Both utilitarian relationships of power and reciprocal relationships of love can contribute to longevity.  There is a longevity bonus attached to social status and power, and a separate correlation with family, sexual contact, and loving connection.



The protective effects of marriage have been known a long time.  Darwin quoted William Farr’s study of the French (1858), finding that marriage (except teen marriage) is associated with better health and lower mortality.  But marriage is difficult to disentangle from economics, access to health care, social standing and a host of other correlates. This paper finds that after correcting for everything under the sun, married men have 7% lower mortality, and women 4% lower, compared to unmarried.  It’s the human connection that counts.  “Although marriage keeps people alive, it does not appear to work through a reduction of stress levels.”  Two kinds of stress must be distinguished.  The stress of poverty or low social station or suffering abuse and contempt of another human is bad for your health and longevity.  But caring for others, taking on responsibility, leading an active, empowered and demanding life can be beneficial [ref].

Both women and men are at highly elevated risk for death during the months immediately following the death of a spouse [ref].


Social correlates of telomere length

It takes a long time to measure the effect of anything on human mortality.  Elissa Epel has pioneered the use of telomere length and telomerase activity as proxies for life expectancy.  She has found telomere loss to be associated with the bad kind of stress—feeling trapped by circumstance, powerless, stuck living in a way that is not what one wants.  Worry shortens your telomeres.  She found telomere connections to a variety of healthy living habits, including exercise, weight loss and meditation.  Suppression of telomerase can be detected from a single experience of humiliation that is tame enough to pass muster with an ethical review board.  This study finds that depression, anxiety and trauma leave their mark on telomere length in men but not women.  Young women also survive adolescence with more of their telomeres intact than young men.  Do men somatize their stress more than women?

Epel and her mentor, Liz Blackburn, have been slow to acknowledge the (now overwhelming) evidence that telomere shortening has a causal relationship to mortality.  They write of telomere length as a “marker” that tells a tale about past stresses and traumas.  They look for a proximate cause in inflammation and oxidative stress, but stop short of asking for a deeper, evolutionary significance.



There have been many studies seeking to connect fertility to longevity in women.  The consensus is a small positive connection—women who have more children tend to live slightly longer.  A message that stands out from this: for women, giving birth after age 40 offers a big bump in longevity, equivalent to setting your aging clock back more than 3 years.  For fathers who have children late in life, the data is thinner, but what data I could find indicate a benefit almost as strong.  The most relevant study I could find was for an Amish population, “a population characterized by large family sizes and close-knit familial units.”  Seven children was average  for these families.  Longevity of both mothers and fathers increased with each additional offspring, up to the 14th child.  But not beyond.

Less clear than the statistics is the interpretation. In my mind, this is all about caring.  When we stay involved in our children’s lives and care about them, there is a benefit for our health, mediated through neurochemistry.  Just my opinion.

(One prominent study finds a negative association between female fertility and longevity, and I have re-analyzed their data to show a positive effect.  The study was co-authored by Tom Kirkwood, best known for the theory that the reason for aging is that the body needs to spend energy on reproduction.  You gotta wonder when the one study that marches to the beat of a different drummer is done by the person whose reputation depends on the contrarian result.)



How could Mother Nature be so politically incorrect?  It is a sad and stubborn fact that, independent of all else, money is a strong predictor of longevity.

In 1980, the poorest one tenth of Americans lived 3 years less than the richest tenth.  By 2000, that gap had widened to 5 years [ref].  It is wider yet today—possibly as much as 14 years for males, 8 for females if this study is to be believed.

You would think there isn’t much difference in access to medicine within the top 1% of family income, but even there, the rich end of the top 1% lives half a year longer than the slightly-less-rich end [ref].

This is a psycho-social effect, connected to prestige and status.  It has little to do with access to health care.  We know this because the wealthy people in poor countries are living longer than the middle classes in wealthy countries, who have comparable incomes and perhaps better access to medical care.



Redeeming Mother Nature’s rep is this study of the Flemish Renaissance which tells us that elite musicians and poets, though poor, lived as long as wealthy non-artists.  Maybe orchestra conductors have just the right combination of leadership and aesthetics to maximize longevity.



A classic study [1943] by an Ohio Medical professor compared lifespans of historical figures in many different fields.  Musicians do better than painters.  Leaders in democracies do better than hereditary monarchs.  Philosophers live longer than poets.  The main conclusion that Lehman puts forward is that late-bloomers live longer than child prodigies**.  This has convinced me that Hillary, Bernie and The Donald don’t really want to be President—they’re in the race for a longevity dividend.




Frequency of sex is a positive predictor of longevity.  The best-known study came from Caerphilly in South Wales [1997].  Men 45-60 who were sexually active had half the mortality rate of men who had sex less frequently.  (I’ve been unable to find corresponding data for women, or more recent data for men.)  The effect seems to be more psychosocial than physiological, because the association is stronger with frequency of intercourse than with masturbation frequency.  (The article in British Medical Journal is written with a British sense of humor, and the authors make a point of debunking folk wisdom and the many religious traditions that associate orgasm with a depletion of vitality, and are especially tough on onanism.)

I think it’s not an accident that the hormone oxytocin is associated with youthful metabolism and is produced in response to intimacy and feelings of closeness.  Oxytocin spikes in an orgasm.



In this study, a crude measure of happiness was associated with a 20% drop in all-cause mortality.  From everything else we’ve seen, this would seem to be unexpectedly low.  If happiness could be more reliably measured and separated from other variables, it might loom even larger.  “For a 70-year-old man of average health, satisfaction of one standard deviation above average promises a 20 months longer life.” [1989]


The Bottom Line

Tilting the odds for a long life is not just a matter of discipline and abstemious living.  A lot of the things you can do to live a long time are things you want to do, or things that will make your life better right now.  Turn off your computer and spend time with a friend.


* “Only connect” is a refrain from E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End
** Lehman emphasizes that much (but not all) of this is a selection effect: If you attained greatness at age 50, that means that you didn’t die before you were 50.

22 thoughts on “Social Correlates of Longevity—Part II

  1. Our well being coincides with our ecosystem. In the case of Humans our ecosystem is the culture we are born into. Wow. More than anyone else Josh- you have stressed that longevity is tied into our extended family and community. If we are starving ( fasting) our species could be going down for the count. If we are physically fighting and running for our lives (exercise) our genome most assuredly believes survival is on the line- and not just for our individual selves but our community. Evolution sees it this way. You have made the connection. Waving to a neighbor makes us feel good. We are all connected. Either we all stand together as brothers and sisters or we all fall together as fools. Now I’m going to put on my headphones – and return to conducting the orchestra.

  2. Hi Josh,

    It seems that in extreme cases the situation is reverse. For example there was a study on the mount Athos monks ( celibates, poor, have no sex) which shows that they live very long and are the healthiest group in the world. More interesting would be the social correlates of health. Nowadays the people live longer but are not so healthy as in the past. What’s so good to live long and not in good health ? I’ve read in a statistic that in US only 1% from people over 60 have no chronic illness.

    Best regards

    • I like to think that wanting things creates anxiety of the wrong kind and injures our health. In our culture, we are conditioned to want things that really don’t do much for us. The simple life of a monk is conducive to being happy with what one has. Maybe that’s the best lesson for satisfaction in the short term and for longevity in the long term.
      – Josh

  3. Do you think that sexual intercorse really caused rejuvenation?
    Or could it be, alternatively, and a simpler explanation, that old people with bad health do not or cannot be interested in sex?

    Tbe eternal problem with human studies, full of interconnected miriads of variables. Thus correlations leading to spurious appearent causalities.

    Flaws and flaws.

    The same with many other social correlates of longevity.

    The same with human studies telling us for decades contradictory conclusions on health and cholesterols, saturated fat, salt intake, olive oil, margarine, fat intake and and longevity.

    Plus economin interests from industrial enterprises…

    I do believe only on experimental Science when properly done, not on many of those things

    • My best guess is that sexual activity is both a cause and an effect of good health as we get older. How to prove it? Maybe you could try moving mice from isolated cages to cages with cages with one M and one F as they get older, and see if they live longer than mice that are paired M-M and F-F.
      – Josh

  4. Josh, I teach a ‘Senior Fit’ class in East Rockaway NY. The class is an hour long. For about the first 10 or so minutes everyone mingles and talks to each other – and a couple of the members get irritated and want to start on time. The argument being that this is a health fitness and longevity class! And I explain politely pointing at the laughing and catching up of family and friends ( after reading your book and wise posts) —that THIS MINGLING is a big part of health and longevity! We need those 10 minutes!
    Thank you.
    P. S. Your book, is wonderful, highly informative and as always well written. Keep up the great work, we are in this together.

  5. But, you see, all this is — fundamentally — psychological. Hence my Psychological Theory of Aging ™ I told you before. ^__^

    > … religious traditions that associate orgasm with a depletion of vitality

    Aren’t you being guilty of double standards compared to how one interprets any form of ‘exercise’?
    The very nature of their approach to the subject reveals how anxious the human being is with this topic.

    In fact, now that I think about it, all this social stuff is sounding ever slightly more hormetic than anything. At least as it “relates” to humans 😉 mwahahah

  6. Well as socially and politically incorrect as it certainly sounds, good luck to most elderly people that decide to try having more sex with their partners for the sake of longevity and satusfaction. Chances are pretty good that their partner actually now looks pretty unattractive to them, which can make natural sex ( without the help of the blue or white male helper pills) seem almost impossible. It is the few, not the many, that have worked hard to keep themselves in fighting, and loving, shape. Just saying… But, once again, thank you for your thoughtfully written, and thought provoking, piece.

  7. calculated personal gain – uncalculated impersonal loss?


    Philosophers from Kant to Buber like to distinguish two ways that people may relate to one another. One is utilitarian, using the person to help you make money or obtain something else that you want. This kind of relationship needn’t be sinister. There can be cooperation and mutual benefit, but the relationship is a calculated investment for personal gain. The second kind of relationship is a core of human friendship or love or companionship or empathy that we value for its own sake, independent of whether we can get anything out of it.

    One is utilitarian, using the person to help you make money or obtain something else that you want. This kind of relationship needn’t be sinister. There can be cooperation and mutual benefit

    “This kind of relationship needn’t be sinister.”

    ” to help you make money or obtain something else that you want”

    By using the word sinister right after benefit it almost feels like you have a lot of guilt and feel ashamed that you are not giving as much of your time away for the lowest price possible, while obtaining nothing you want

    Sounds to me like someone who would associate

    ” two ways that people may relate to one another.”

    Only two ways? Are they the most important “two ways” That seens very simplified, how calculating of you to reduce human relationships to either gain or loss…. that’s a very efficient system ! just like a calculator!

    “The second kind of relationship is a core of human friendship or love or companionship or empathy, One is utilitarian, using the person to help you make money or obtain something else that you want.
    The second kind of relationship is a core of human friendship or love or companionship or empathy that we value for its own sake, independent of whether we can get anything out of it.”

    You’re not using someone for friendship, love, or companionship? You are taking their time by capturing their attention, ethically, it is your responsibility to be as interesting as possible.. narcissism definitely helps you be more self conscious of your flaws and put on the best face to the world-and they will love you for it….what happens when you use advanced technology to create a simulation of the best possible experience(depending on what you are trying to portray) and then… instead of letting it all happen according to nature… you be really really deviant and edit it, and cut, and take 100 takes for every 30 seconds to create a different………

    When i read an article it should be as long and confusing as possible, otherwise, im supporting those calculating deviants , it should also be boring, otherwise i would feel guilt, yes… i should also feel guilt for wanting to feel stimulated, that makes me a sociopath, and that is bad , i feel like such a terrible person, i hope its not shortening my telomeres ,

    Thanks for making me worry.. and feel guilt, while also at the same time, giving me an education on telomeres, i should know the full extent of the damage worrying causes

    ” independent of whether we can get anything out of it.”

    Are you not getting love, friendship out of it? or maybe you are getting money which buys you time to pursue those relationships since you cant force authentic friendship or love… they happen accidentally… become who you wish you could meet,

    You’re suggesting we decrease our rate of aging by entering into relationships based on un calculated impersonal loss, very clever compared to the rest of your vague comments on worry and telomeres

    I agree, time definitely feels like it’s going by slower when you enter into relationships based on uncalculated impersonal loss

    I think we’re all in such a hurry(thanatos) instinct to have fun and make time seem like its going by as fast as possible, were all sick nihilists

    Its good you let me know about telomeres

    its the first time i’ve ever heard about telomeres on an aging researchers site in 2016

    It turns out…..According to Josh Mitteldorf the man himself

    that no special diet makes you live longer, infact, eating as little as possible is currently the most proven way to increase life span and it appears that damaging the metabolism with exercise in small amounts every day seems to also impair the rate of aging

    the body has to repair the tissue spending resources to recover from the exercise… so it has less resources for the controlled damage… the body damages itself… purposely

    deviant…….. the “devil” “divides” Life from you with death

    This is why i hate aging

    since we can’t add more than 10 years using the healthy-lifestyle pitch…

    In conclusion
    based on your article:

    we should enter into relationships based on impersonal loss and be “uncalculated”.. (he didnt really “distinguish” what he meant by calculated…. when i think of a calculator i associate it with accuracy….) We should also feel remorse and guilt for using someone for friendship, money, in fact the better the combination the more guilt we should have, we should feel guilt when we also merge business with pleasure, i guess that would be terrible for productivity? and overall happiness,,,

    To extend our life, we should separate business from pleasure, that way, you work 8 hours, and live 4 hours, combining them so you live all day… would make us all very guilt-ridden and we would feel like terrible deviants because of it…..

    You are a genius, and i think your solution to aging is revolutionary, make life as painful as possible, by feeling terrible guilt avoiding any beneficial relationship and then time seems to be slowing down like the matrix


  8. I think that benefit, making money, etcetera, have little to do with (biological aging)

    Available evidence indicates thst the most important factors determining aging at cell level are mitochondria and free radicals, and autophagocytosis.

    Concernin telomers, perhaps they are relevant but limited to mitotic tissues (if the cell does not divide the telomers do not shorten)

    • Making money by itself may not be what’s important here. What might be is the feeling of contentment and the tranquil mind that comes with paying your bills on time. Not having enough money unfortunately translates to chronic stress. There’s the life- shortner?

      • Steve-

        That explanation works for the lower social classes.
        Harder to explain is the fact that longevity continues to increase with income as income rises from $100K per year to $1 million $10 million. Stress about paying bills is probably not a factor.

        Some kinds of stress decrease life span – the stress of humiliation and insufficiency. Other kinds of stress increase lifespan – the stress of challenge and added responsibility.

        – JJM

        • Yes I thoughtfully, agree. ‘Stress the big key player here, again. All kinds of stress. Making that kind of money in a mostly capitalistic marketplace adds in one more factor, Josh– Confidence. The competive competence of winning in business. We are the legacy of the last ape standing, are we not? Apex predator’s of the past are movers and shakers today. Evolution is again the answer.

  9. JM said: “Harder to explain is the fact that longevity continues to increase with income as income rises from $100K per year to $1 million $10 million”.

    Josh, I think this is indirect. I mean, having more and more money (more than the minimum needed) gives people acces to very costly health care interventions, and very frequent preventive measures (against diseases, e.g. very frequent vigilance against initiation of tumors etc) which contribute to Postpone Death (not to delay aging) in a significant part (not all, of course) of the people that do that.

    In addition, this is expected to have more impact on Countries on which social security and health systems do not properly cover the whole population, which, unfortunately are too many, even in the West.

    But I do not think that the joy of being very rich, or the joy of feeling the power that being rich can give, in itself (I mean, from psico-brain to soma to increased biological health and survival) really increases survival.

    And of course it has nothing to do with aging. The world is full of very rich people who are very old-looking. Of course because mean life span (survival) and slow aging (marked by maximum longevity) are two things absolutely different. The rich can hope to live a somewhat longer life (if they use their money and current knowledge well). But they cannot expect that this slows aging. Satying young is not simply surviving. If you survive to an older age, you will be a very Old man (not “Young”).

    Only by truly decreasing aging rate one can reach a long life and at the same time staying “Young”. And here is the job of us, the scientists, to continue study Biological Aging to uncover how to do that. Nature does it very easily….

    But is not a question of being rich (now) nor of health care, etc (this affects survival but does not avoid biological aging to continue in the body at exactly the same pace). You can repair a part in the body that went wrong, but this is not “to stay as in your twenties”.

      • Do you really believe someone that gets $1 million can ever be satisfied by money? Of course there must be more *out there* to fulfill their PSYCHE, after all, see all those other ones getting $10 million? They even live longer! Can’t miss that! =) You see, there isn’t much of a difference from the mentality that got them there, to the one that one get them to the next step. It’s the same dysfunction.

        • Concerning aging I think we should forget obsession with Money and concentrate in looking for the causes of aging at molecular, cellular, organism and natural ecosystem levels!

          What we need is more Sci. Kcowledge, and using the MONEY to increase aging research, instead mis-expending it by extravagances of the billionaires.

  10. On sex and orgasm–For at least some of our history only the strongest alpha in a pack or small tribe could have sex. This is also the case in Animals where the tribe has a pecking order. Wolves come to mind. Alpha’s live the longest and perhaps most contented lives. It’s good to be the King?

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