Good neighbors can make you live longer


Living close to family members or friends you know well can make you physically healthier and help you age more slowly. This revelation about the value of good neighbours came in a new study by scientists from the universities of East Anglia and Leeds in the UK, and Groningen in The Netherlands. The research showed that birds in areas where they had more relatives or familiar neighbours were in better condition than birds who were loners.


Neighbourly birds – credit: Anguerde

You might wonder how this was assessed. Since you can’t exactly interview birds about their neighbourly relations. What the scientists did was measure the birds’ telomeres. You remember those shoelace-like markers of aging. Long telomeres are good and short ones are bad, in terms of longevity.

Birds have telomeres too, and when things don’t go well in the ‘hood their telomeres suffer. This study revealed that when new neighbours moved in, longtime residents’s telomeres got shorter. The birds that these scientists studied were Seychelles Warblers, a small African bird endemic to the Indian Ocean islands east of Kenya.

Seychelles Warbler

Seychelles Warbler (credit: privateislandnews)

The relevance of this scientific investigation to me and you is that such avian neighbourly behaviour is said to similarly occur among human beings. Now I’m used to taking lessons from mice. I’ve come to accept that findings from scientific research among lab rats are applicable to people. However, I can’t remember a study on bird life that was extrapolated to human behaviour.

“The results show just how important keeping good neighbours can be. Interestingly, we show that it’s not just relatives that can be trusted, but also neighbours you get to know well over time.”

– crowing by study’s authors

Well, this is my first time to learn a life lesson from a feathered friend. Not that I’m bothered by the fact that the study was of birds rather than rats. I get it that good neighbourliness can have health benefits, and that this can apply across species. The lead author of the research compared these findings among birds to interactions in human neighbourhoods.

“If you’ve lived next to your neighbour for years, you are much more likely to trust each other and help each other out.”

– Kat Bebbington, University of East Anglia School of Biological Sciences

What concerns me is this emphasis on neighbours. When we all know the old saying about not being able to choose them. (Or your relatives, another relationship that is out of your control.)

Neighbours are those – whether bird or human – who happen to live where you live. You cannot pre-select neighbours to suit your taste. Other than proximity, they don’t necessarily have anything in common with you. If they do, it’s pure coincidence. There are limits to what you can do to improve your situation, neighbour-wise.

neighbours good and bad

Neighbours – good or bad, you can’t choose ’em.

Now such neighborhood-focused research is being applied to people as they get older. I fear that these findings may spark despair and despondency among those of us who are not lucky enough to have neighbours who improve our health to the point that it slows our aging.

A preferred living model for older adults is known as “aging in place”. Sure, but it depends on what the place is like. Which brings us back to that factor over which we have little or no control: your neighbours.

Another study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that living in a tight-knit neighborhood lowered the risk of stroke among adults 50 years and older. Well, that vibe is nice if you can get it, but not everyone can. Not all older people – or older birds, I’d wager – live in a neighbourhood so chilled that it lowers their blood pressure.

Yet another study, by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, showed that the rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less in people with frequent social contact, compared with those with little social interaction. Socially active people were shown to have 43 percent less disability than those who stick to themselves.

Who doesn’t want to have a great social life, in their own neighbourhood, with great neighbours? The problem is that the whole concept of neighbourliness is not the same as it was in the past.

“It’s a different feeling when your doorbell rings today, as opposed to 20 years ago.”

– comedian Sebastian Maniscalco

That’ s how the Italian-American comic opens his stand-up routine. He explains that back then, when your doorbell rang, it was a happy moment in the house. Everyone rushed to the door, without hesitation.. Years ago there was an expectation that people would pop in. And what did they say when you answered the door?

“’I was in the neighbourhood, so I thought I’d drop by.’ Now your doorbell rings, you turn and ask your family, ‘Did you invite anybody over?’ You can’t stop by anybody’s house any more. If you do, you have to call from the driveway: ‘I’m here, can I approach?’”

– comedian Maniscalco

Maybe that bird-based study on the benefits of good neighbourliness forgot to mention a distinctive birdcall announcing an impending visit.


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