January 4, 2021 • Third Third Journal
Do You Want to Live to 100?
A Review of Growing Young by Marta Zaraska
by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Science journalist and author Marta Zaraska has written a fascinating book with the title Growing Young. That got my attention immediately because my colleagues at the Fuller Youth Institute also wrote a book called Growing Young. But they’re not the same book. FYI’s version of Growing Young is about churches and has the subtitle: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. Zaraska’s version of Growing Young is about people who are getting chronologically older and has the subtitle: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
Zaraska is serious about living to 100. In the second paragraph of the introduction she writes, “I want my daughter to one day to become a centenarian” (p. 1). When I read that line I thought, “I’ve been a parent for over twenty years of two children whom I love dearly and never once have I wanted them to live to 100. I’ve thought a thousand times about wanting them to have a good life, a life of meaning, a life filled with love. But living to 100? I’ll leave that desire to Zaraska.
However, she and I have more in common than it might seem when it comes to our goals for our children. She wants her children to have a long life. I want mine to have good lives. As it turns out, Zaraska’s main argument is that the very things I consider essential for good living turn out to be the very things that contribute most to longevity. Living to 100, it turns out, has everything to do with crafting a life of meaning, a life filled with love.
I expected Growing Young to contain lots of encouragement to take care of our aging bodies by eating right, exercising, avoiding things like smoking and drinking, and so forth. Zaraska does survey research that suggests these things matter. Yet she is critical of the popular hype that focuses on this or that secret to longevity. She explains: “I wrote Growing Young out of a belief that in the deluge of reductionist wellness news we’ve somehow lost the big picture, ignoring the things that may matter the most for our longevity: relationships, emotions, and the psyche” (p. 8). After reading over 600 academic papers and talking with more than 50 scientists, Zaraska wrote Growing Young “to help you fundamentally rethink how you approach your health—whether you might be putting too much effort into strategies that don’t work well (supplements, fitness trackers, etc.) and not enough into those that truly matter (your love life, your friendships, your life’s meaning” (p. 9).
Notice that Zaraska is not arguing that your quality of life will be better if you focus on these things. She seeks rather to persuade you that you will live longer if you emphasize relationships and meaning. And she does this by drawing from ample scholarly research. She even tries to show some of the physiological mechanisms that translate loving relationships, for example, into physical health and longevity.
Consider, for example, the case of volunteering. People who volunteer in some charitable cause are certainly enjoying the emotional benefits of serving others. But they are also extending their lives, according to the research. Zaraska concludes, “By now we have a hefty pile of studies documenting how powerful benevolence can be for our centenarian potential. Controlling for things such as marital status, religiosity, or social connections, volunteering reduces mortality by 22 to 44 percent—about as much as eating six or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. What’s more, volunteers may have 29 percent lower risk of high blood glucose, about 17 percent lower risk of high inflammation levels, and spend 38 percent fewer nights in hospitals than do people who shy from involvement in charities” (pp. 166-167). If you volunteer only because you want to add years to your, you’ll miss out on some of the benefits. But if you activate what Zaraska calls the “caregiving system” of your brain, then you will indeed live longer, all other things being equal.
I found particularly informative Chapter 11 of Growing Young, “Longevity Lessons from Japan” (p. 227 and following). I learned about ikigai, a Japanese word that might be roughly translated as “purpose in life” or “doing something useful for others.” Studies show that “Among Japanese people over the age of sixty-five, about 88 percent claim to have ikigai” (p. 240). This helps to explain why Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country, six years longer than the United States, by the way.
Because ikigai is part of Japanese culture, it’s hard to measure compare its impact with what might be found in other countries. “One study that came close,” Zaraska explains, “asked people in ten countries to rate such statements as ‘I am doing something useful for my family or for the world’ or ‘My family or others believe I am able to do something important for them.’ Japan scored the highest in terms of the percentage of people who answered ‘very much’ to these claims—27 and 26 percent, respectively. In the US, those numbers were 11 percent for the first question and a mere 8 percent for the second” (p. 240).
Zaraska is not saying we shouldn’t care about the condition of our bodies, about what we eat, or how much we exercise. “Yet,” she writes, “though healthy nutrition and physical activity are indeed important for health—within reason—there are things that can affect your centenarian potential even more, things that we all too often sacrifice while we chase fad diets and the newest cardio workouts. Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness. Science shows that these ‘soft’ health drivers are often more powerful than diet and exercise” (p. 247).
I found Growing Young consistently fascinating and engaging. Zaraska has done a good job distilling lots of scientific data into readable and applicable prose. What didn’t quite work for me, however, was her consistent reference to becoming a centenarian. Yes, as someone in his sixties, I certainly hope to live for many more years. But I’m more concerned about my quality of life than the quantity of my years. For Zaraska, this is almost an afterthought. In the “Epilogue” she writes, “What’s more, focusing your longevity effort on growing as a person could not just add years to your life but also make that life more worth living. Caring for others, contributing to the community, and living meaningfully help us reach old age, stave off disease, and make us happy all at the same time” (p. 248).
Zaraska has little to say about religion and nothing to say about faith. But thinking as a Christian about her argument, I see lots of overlapping emphases. She summarizes what matters for longevity with phrases such as “Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness” and “Caring for others, contributing to the community, and living meaningfully.” These qualities are central to what it means to live as a follower of Jesus. Now, I wouldn’t recommend that someone become a Christian mainly to extend their physical life. After all, Jesus did say, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Following Jesus in order to live to 100 doesn’t make sense. But following Jesus does help us to value the things that science says contribute to longevity. Moreover, it gives us a transcendent purpose for living, a context for genuine community, and a call to love others deeply. And these are some of the very things Zaraska argues, based on scientific research, will help you live to 100.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.