How much coffee is too much?
Can chocolate improve your sex life? Could love make us live longer?
These burning questions are answered in a new book about some of life’s big health issues, written by Monash University’s Professor Of Medicine, Merlin Thomas.
“Patients have often asked me questions like, ‘How much alcohol is too much? Is chocolate bad for you?” says Merlin, who’s also a specialist in endocrinology and kidney disease. “So I started making of list of all the most common questions, and researching them.”
The result is The Longevity List: Myth Busting The Top Ways to Live a Long And Healthy Life.
In doing so, he admits, “I learned a tremendous amount! For example, for my chapter on fresh air, I looked at what it is about ocean air that makes it smell a certain way. It turns out there’s a particular kind of algae releasing gases.”
And speaking of fresh air, we asked him his thoughts on diesel. New statistics show eight per cent, or 330,00 more Australian drivers have chosen diesel to power their vehicles, in 2017.) He later emailed us a response.
But first, here’s an excerpt from the chapter Merlin sees as one of his new book’s most important, Do I Really Have to Find Love?
The Perfect Partner
Most of what we find attractive in a potential partner is contained in their behaviour and appearance. We all have our likes and dislikes that are highly personal. However, when presented in a line-up, heterosexual women will generally revert to stereotype, and favour characteristics in potential partners that signal a man has the status and the resources to, at the very least, satisfy their needs and preferably give them a lift up the social ladder.
These status characteristics are more often seen in men who are older than the women and, by and large, women prefer older men. Interestingly, in doing so, women married to older men get a bonus of living longer than women married to younger men.
Possibly because they can afford to be more choosy or simply have access in the social circles in which they move, highly affluent women with plenty of resources tend, on average, to favour even older men than those women with less financial independence.
It’s not the only thing women want. Another key characteristic in a prospective partner is their potential for fidelity. Romance is a long game and what good are a man’s financial resources if they ultimately leave with him? Male behaviours that appear exploitative, self-interested, exaggerated or frankly narcissistic, are all predictors of future infidelity, are not a good basis for a successful long-term relationship, and so are usually considered a turn-off.
The idea that women always go for bad boys and that nice guys finish last is simply a fallacy cooked up by the selfish ego of the narcissists. Women generally prefer nice guys. In particular, those men who recognize and understand a woman’s feelings and needs (i.e. show empathy) are not only are being nice, they are also showing the potential for fidelity and this is therefore desirable. One simple way to judge a man’s potential for fidelity may be by his ability to tell a good story. In general, women find charming storytellers far more attractive than poor storytellers and flirts.
And because of this clear female preference to (usually but not always) invest wisely, in general, men are more preoccupied with displays of wealth, strength and bravado, alongside pledges of undying fidelity. Because this is what men imagine women want: prince plus charming. Status plus empathy.
Men, on the other hand, generally find sexual vitality and youth more desirable than power status or a good story. These vital statistics are more often seen in women who are younger than they are, so generally, older men prefer younger women. Although there are limits. Going out with a woman who is half their age plus seven is generally viewed as socially unacceptable or ‘cradle snatching’.
Interestingly, there is also a payback. Men married to younger women tend to live longer than men married to older women. And unlike women, the more affluent men become the more they prefer younger and even more attractive women, possibly because they too can afford to be choosy.
Because of this obvious male preference, (generally but not always) women are more preoccupied with the appearance of youth and sexiness. Because this is what women imagine that men want.
Of course, this is all a very, very crude generalization. Nothing is ever so base as gold diggers and trophy wives. These are obvious stereotypes. It may have worked this way in the past, but it never happens this way in an erudite modern society. Or does it?
In fact, in tests where men and women are confronted with hypothetical scenarios in which they have to choose one image of a potential partner over another, the statistics don’t lie about what we ideally prefer. Prince Charming’s attractive status and empathy works for women. Sleeping Beauty’s youthful and attractive appearance works for men.
There’s nothing wrong with having ideals. When we have limited information and are forced to make a decision, all we can use are stereotypes. But we are never that impulsive in real life. If we followed through with our perfect ideals, with freedom to choose and with no limitations, the age difference in couples would be, on average, a decade between the older man and the younger woman.
In reality the difference is more like three years, on average, with lots of variability either way. In at least half of all couples who live together, the man is at least a year older than the woman, but usually no more than five years. It is probable that we take what we can get, as most people in our social circle are of similar age to us.
In about a third of couples, their ages are no more than a year apart.
This figure seems pretty high, until we consider the fact that couples of a similar age have an exceedingly low divorce rate on average. By contrast, relationships with bigger age differences, while not doomed to failure, don’t last as well and so bring the average down.
In the remaining couples, in about one in seven the woman is older, but again usually not by much. It seems the idea of cougars is one of those many sexual myths invented by male teenagers who paradoxically find older women more attractive, bucking the trend.
Interestingly, in gay and lesbian relationships, the age gap between partners is on average twice that seen in heterosexual relationships, much closer to the imaginary ideal when studying the perceived attractiveness of hypothetical partners.
The Bottom Line
When we look back on our life, the things we most treasure are our loves: when we felt like we belonged, were connected, when we were part of something bigger than ourselves, when we were a member of the team or the band. Even though we may have broken up and gone our separate ways (or even on to solo careers), the bonds we have made continue to define us in so many ways. Just one of these is our health and longevity.
Our loves give us pleasure, for sure. But more than just a good time, belonging in any kind of positive relationship gives us access to more things to value than ourselves. Maybe this means we look after ourselves a little better. Maybe this means we have a more rosy view of the world, and don’t get as easily riled up or stressed in the face of adversity. Maybe it rewires our brain or gives us other resources we need to prosper. Who knows? Love is an enigma, but it’s hardly a mystery why we should want some.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. For all the potions, fragrances and body odour, for all the good looks and all the money, attraction is an unpredictable coincidence. Given its allure, we are more than willing to try our luck. But there is more than only one kind of love.
What matters to our health is that we find belonging, somewhere to put ourselves into context, a place to be (ourselves). Every day there are new opportunities to fall a little in love with people, with pets, with enchanting places. And after all, in the end, it’s the love we make that counts.
And now, here is Merlin’s answer to the question, “Should we ban diesel?”
Diesel used to be the good guy. Better fuel efficiency and a smaller carbon footprint so less global warming. More Australians are driving diesel cars and trucks than ever. Yet today, many are now called for diesel to be banned.
It’s not just Volkswagen’s cheating on their emission tests. Tiny particles that come out with diesel exhaust (known as Particulate Matter (PM) – obviously) are clearly damaging to human health and have been linked to disease like lung cancer, asthma and heart disease. The filters on modern diesel vehicles reduce PM in the air, often to levels less than typical petrol cars. That is, if we remembered to change them as often as we should. And old diesel cars and trucks have no such protection.
Other toxic gases from diesel exhaust also help create “bad ozone” which instead of sitting in the upper atmosphere now shrouds many major cities, especially during summer. In some places diesel vehicles must stay at home on bad ozone days.
It is obvious that the days of burning any fuel in cars are numbered. Just last month, both France and the UK governments pledged to end the sale of all internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040, both petrol and diesel ones alike. Climate change is a long-term issue and may take generations to turn around. But clean air is achievable in our lifetime, if it is something we really want for our health and longevity.