For thousands of years, people have tried to unlock the secret to living a long life. Research into longevity shows that it’s not really a secret at all – we have summed it up with five tips you can use to live longer and feel better.
A generation or two ago, the idea of living past 90 was unrealistic. Advances in modern medicine now help us to survive common ailments and diseases that were once fatal but it’s our lifestyle that ultimately makes the difference.
If you think you don’t have longevity on your side because your grandparents and parents didn’t live a long life, don’t. The Danish Twin Study found that just 20% of life expectancy is determined by genetics. The other 80% comes down to environment and lifestyle – things you can influence!
The Key to Longer Life is Found in the World’s Oldest Populations
The Japanese have the longest life expectancy (87.1 for women and 81.1 years for men) of any country in the world. Japan has held the top spot since 1980 but in 1960 their ranking was 35 then 10 in 1970. Japanese longevity is attributed to their diet, excellent Body Mass Index (BMI) and only small amounts of alcohol consumed by women over the age of 50.
Australia is ranked sixth with women’s life expectancy at 84.8 and men at 81.0 years. Between the ages of 40 and 65, Australian men hold the first world ranking while women rank sixth or seventh. The main cause of death in Australians is coronary heart disease.
There are communities around the world called Blue Zones where the highest proportion of residents reach 100 years of age. Five regions in Sardinia, Greece, Costa Rica, California and Japan were studied to find nine common denominators that may hold the key to living longer. These studies have shown that longer life expectancy is based around common lifestyle factors including diet, exercise, body weight, social life and avoiding risk factors like smoking and alcohol.
How to Live Longer – Our Tips For Living As Long as Possible
Extending life expectancy may not be a worthwhile goal unless you also improve the quality of your lifestyle and health. No one wants to simply extend their life without maintaining quality of life. Research shows that these five healthy lifestyle habits can both improve the quantity and quality of life. So, what can we do to live longer?
#1 Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Living a healthy life can depend on body weight and Body Mass Index (BMI). Pressure on the body’s organs increases with every kilo of excess weight.
The World Health Organization states BMI should be between 18.5–24.9 kg m−2 for optimal health. The standard BMI categories are 18.5–24.9 for normal weight, 25–29.9 for overweight, and >30 for obesity. WHO reported the mean BMI has risen in men and women between 1975 and 2016. In Australia in 2016, 29% of adults were obese with a BMI >30.
A BMI in the overweight and obese categories have a strong link to developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cholelithiasis and other chronic diseases in men and women. People who are both lean and physically active have the lowest risk of chronic disease and mortality. But being lean isn’t enough, it is the addition of physical activity that provides the protection according to a study reported by the US National Center for Biotechology Information (NCBI).
However, BMI has come under scrutiny in recent years because it isn’t an accurate measure for some individuals. A muscular body builder can have a BMI of 30 but very little body fat. Someone who has lost muscle mass may be in the normal range but have a high proportion of body fat. BMI also doesn’t take into account the distribution of fat and excess fat in some parts of the body is more dangerous than others.
Abdominal fat is recognised as the most harmful kind of fat. There are two kinds of abdominal fat – subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat sits beneath the skin where it’s not too harmful however visceral fat is the dangerous one. These fat cells release metabolic products into the bloodstream which are delivered to the liver. The free fatty acids then accumulate in the heart, pancreas and other organs. These organs aren’t designed to store fat, so it leads to dysfunction causing problems with regulation of insulin levels, blood sugar and cholesterol.
Your hip to weight ratio should be kept in check. To calculate, stand and measure your abdomen at the navel relaxed then measure your hips at the widest point and divide your waist size by your hip size or use this online calculator. A ratio higher than 0.8 indicates you are at an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
#2 Enjoy Regular Physical Exercise Every Day
Do you live longer if you work out? Yes! Exercise is a proven way to keep your BMI in the healthy range and staying healthy and a great way to improve your chances of making it to 90 years and beyond.
One of the nine common traits of Blue Zones’ residents is that they ‘move naturally’ every day. Moving naturally means they don’t do excessive exercise like running marathons but they move without thinking throughout the day. They tend to their garden and work in their houses and yards. It’s thought this incidental exercise is better for you than engaging in strenuous gym sessions or long-distance running.
In fact, excessive exercise is harmful in terms of preserving your body. Over-exercise will lead to damaging knees, hips and joints. The Blue Zones recommends working all parts of the body with some rigor so you breathe heavy and sweat for five to ten hours per week. This equates to swimming, running, walking or riding 30 to 40 minutes every other day and two hours on the weekend.
Regular exercise is not only good for the body but also the brain. Studies have shown exercise improves our mood and decreases feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.
Exercise also keeps our muscles and bones in good working order. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass and function which can lead to an injury or disability. By exercising regularly, you reduce muscle loss, build bone density and maintain strength. Physical activity can also improve insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular fitness and decrease blood pressure and fat levels.
#3 Eat A Healthy, Balanced Diet
Can eating healthy make you live longer? Definitely!
Eating well ensures you keep your weight and body fat down but also provides your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs for a long, healthy life.
Your diet should be rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and calcium. The minimum recommended intake is two fruit and five vegetables every day. Choose a range of colours in your fruit and vegetables to ensure you are getting the full range of vitamins and minerals. Limit your intake of red meat in favour of trimmed chicken and consume fish twice a week. Don’t char or overcook any meats as this increases carcinogens.
Try to eat plenty of plant sources of protein such as nuts and beans. Plants are the best foods to eat if you want to live longer. Choose whole grains rather than refined grains like white bread and limit white potatoes.
Blue Zones’ residents eat plenty of black, fava, soy beans and lentils. Their diet is mainly plant based so their intake of meat is low at around five times per month. They eat mainly lean pork with a serving size of no bigger than a pack of cards.
One of the nine commandments is that people living in Blue Zones only eat until their stomach feels 80% full. It’s the 20% they don’t eat that keeps their weight in check. They also eat the smallest meal of their day in the late afternoon or early evening and don’t eat again that day. Their motto may be eat less live longer.
#4 Keep Making Good Social Connections
If you want to live as long as possible, maintaining strong social connections and relationships is important. As people age, it can become more difficult to get out and see existing friends. Meeting new people can also become difficult. There are transport issues when older people give up driving and their social network can shrink due to deaths and other life changes. Children and grandchildren may not visit often due to distance and busy schedules.
However, maintaining a strong social network common to most residents in the blue zones. Many of these communities have a strong connection to their faith and visit church regularly where they connect with familiar faces and maintain a healthy social life.
Research has also shown there are physical benefits to staying connected. Lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system and possibly reduced inflammation can be the result of being happy around other people.
Housing choice can be influenced by the need to stay connected. Rather than staying in the family home on their own, moving to a retirement village or care facility will give elderly people daily contact with carers and other residents.
#5 Drink Less Alcohol
One of the most important tips for living a long life without disease is to limit alcohol consumption. The Australian culture of heavy social drinking might be fun, but our alcohol consumption is sending some of us to an early grave. One of the nine Blue Zone habits is wine at 5pm. Most people living in blue zones drink no more than 1-2 glasses of wine per day with food.
Older Japanese women (over the age of 50) consume very little alcohol, one of the main reasons for Japan’s number one longevity ranking. Females over the age of 70 in one of the blue zones – Okinawa Japan – are the longest lived population in the world.
Alcohol can cause a range of diseases and poor health outcomes. Cirrhosis of the liver and car accidents are the leading health risks caused by excessive drinking however researchers have linked it to 60 diseases.
The main health problems caused by chronic heavy drinking include:
Anemia – oxygen carrying red blood cells are defective and destroyed before their natural lifespan in heavy drinkers.
Cancer – not just one type of cancer, heavy drinking is believed to contribute to cancers of the larynx, pharynx, mouth, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal area. Combined with smoking, heavy drinkers are at very high risk levels.
Cardiovascular disease – Heart attack and stroke are common in heavy drinkers because the platelets clump together to form blood clots. Cardiomyopathy is another common condition of alcohol consumption where the heart muscle is weakened and has the potential to fail.
Cirrhosis – a scarring of the liver to the point it can’t function. Female drinkers are more vulnerable than men.
The secrets to a long life aren’t so secret. Eat well, exercise regularly, work on building a strong social life you could find yourself enjoying your 90th birthday and beyond!