It’s an interesting phenomenon. People in certain areas of the world just tend to live longer than others. Researchers have analyzed the life, health and environmental components of these “Blue Zones” to try to determine what makes the oldest residents keep ticking. Among other things, Blue Zones are marked by lower rates of smoking, more vegetarian diets, and rich, meaningful family and friend relationships.
But there’s a difference between studying Blue Zones and actually implementing some of their lessons in other areas and cultures.
Enter the town of Frome. This market town located in Somerset County in South West England has taken a unique approach to the health care of their aging population, one that draws on data coming out of Blue Zones. It all centers around community, interpersonal connections and fostering new friendships.
What this town has done is simple but remarkable.
In 2013, Dr. Helen Kingston, a general practitioner in Frome, started The Compassionate Frome Project. The initiative was born from the frustration expressed by patients, doctors and nurses alike. Patients reported that they felt defeated by the “medicalization” of their lives. Instead of being treated as people, they were being treated as a cluster of health symptoms. And the staff felt that they were working in isolation, or “silo working,” treating discrete symptoms instead of the individual.
Kingston understood that illness can reduce a person’s ability to socialize, and the resulting isolation can worsen the person’s general health. So, she set about trying to connect patients with other people in the community.
With help from the UK’s national health care service and Frome’s town council, Kingston created a directory of local agencies and community groups. She then hired “health connectors” to assist patients with planning their care. Perhaps most importantly, taking a lead from the Blue Zones, Kingston looked beyond her practice and trained volunteer “community connectors” to help patients find the community support they needed.
And so, The Compassionate Frome Project began, with the overarching goal of disrupting the cycle of isolation, loneliness and health decline.
This cycle is not based merely on perceptions – there is solid science behind it. A recent paper in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology explains what happens in our bodies when we are isolated, and how that plays a role in diminishing health.
Cytokines, chemicals in our immune systems that function as messengers and can cause inflammation, change our behavior, and encourage us to withdraw from others. The research paper posits that sickness makes us more vulnerable to the adverse effects of cytokines, and that inflammation can contribute to depression. At the same time, higher levels of cytokines and inflammation make us move towards our closest loved ones. But for those older patients who don’t have strong family and social ties, there is no one to turn to. Hence, depression and inflammation worsen.
Put simply, isolation causes inflammation, and inflammation causes further loneliness and depression.
There is a happy ending, however, to the story of the little town in Somerset and The Compassionate Frome Project. Since the program was implemented, Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29%, but in Frome, they fell by 17%. According to a report to The Guardian, Dr. Julian Abel, a palliative care physician, says, “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.”
So, what happened in a small English town is big news for cultures and cities across the globe. The findings from The Compassionate Frome Project indicate that community and social supports and interaction can all help keep people healthier.
As astounding as the initial results from the Frome study are, they are not unique. Previous studies have linked the elements of social relationships and longevity. For example, a 2010 research article published in PLOS Medicine reported that a review of almost 150 studies, involving over 300,000 people, showed that people with solid social connections had a 50% lower chance of dying across the average study period of 7.5 years than those with weak or no connections. According to the paper, the effect of strong social relationships is on par with quitting smoking when it comes to the health benefits. That’s powerful stuff.
We may all do well to take this research finding, that from Frome, and those from the Blue Zones as seriously as we do our physical health. Perhaps we should write ourselves a prescription to keep engaging with friends, family and our greater community. We know it feels good, and science shows it does our bodies good. Plus, when we reach out to others, not only are we avoiding loneliness, but we are sharing kindness and connection with another person, so they aren’t lonely either. With no downsides or side-effects, why not recommit to making your social connections healthy?