The Science of Longevity: a Guide to Living Longer
Core - Edition Nº16
People have been fascinated by the secrets (or science) of vitality and longevity for quite some time. While we’ll presumably never find a magic pill or omnipotence spell to grant ourselves a longer life, there are more than enough solutions to enjoy a sustainable level of happiness and good health throughout our lives.
Most aspects of life influence our longevity. With tiny steps and changes in our habits or mindset, we could increase the quality of our lives exponentially. You could go outside and spend a few minutes a day in the sun, exposing yourself to the warming sunlight. Or you could devise a morning routine that leaves you happier and calmer in just 10 minutes.
Living longer is a beautiful thing. But living pain-free and independently is what we really want. But while future advances in medical research may help us improve our longevity even more, ultimately, our health is up to our actions.
The intersection of longevity is made up of three roads:
Our lifespan: living as long as possible
Our healthspan: living pain-free for longer
Slowing the process of ageing
People think that longevity runs in the family, that it comes down to good genetics. But it may surprise you (as it did for me) that genetics account for well under 10 percent of how long someone lives— and it has for the past two centuries. Good genes only account for a tiny part of true longevity and well-being. The rest is under your control.
Our routines and habits represent what helps us live a long and healthy life. Most differences in how we age and avoid illness or injury come down to the slight decisions we make each day. Such as the quality of your sleep schedule, your morning routine, eating habits, or thought processes.
Stellar longevity lies beneath the surface of our skin. So, to help you make better decisions and improve the way you think, move and live, there are five areas to address:
Exercise & Recovery
Preventing the Preventable
There’s plenty much to dissect in each section. So, here’s an overview:
Improving our longevity through our diet balances on three requisites — something that vegetarians can excel at:
fewer bad fats
reducing fat mass
A vegetarian eats lots of vegetables prepared with healthy fats (such as olive oil) while limiting animal products like cheese and cream.
What do you think is the leading cause of death and shortened life expectancy in the U.S.?
Indeed it’s heart disease. As your heart ages — or your diet worsens — there starts to be a build-up of gunk in your arteries which forces your blood pressure to rise and makes your heart work harder than it should.
Generally, most research agrees that our diet has the largest impact on our longevity. Even more so than exercise and stress.
Inflammatory food hits the hardest, and it’s something we should dearly avoid; it’s our body’s way of healing and defending itself. But it requires a healthy production of immune cells, white blood cells and cytokines (they coordinate the fight against infections). In the short term, inflammation works well to repair our bodies and alert us, but in the long term, inflammation can create a slew of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
The problem with inflammation is it’s often hard to notice what’s wrong until it’s too late. Dr Andrew Luster says it’s “a smouldering process that injures your tissues, joints and blood vessels, and you often don’t notice it until significant damage is done”. This makes it harder to know how you can be affected by it.
Studies also agree that we must avoid inflammatory foods more often and reduce the inflammation we already have. We can fix this by knowing what not to eat.
Refined carbs: white bread, pasta, cakes, pastries may promote inflammation. These quickly turn into sugar during digestion, which inflicts a sharp rise in your insulin levels and pro-inflammatory cytokines. The journal Nutrients saw that high GI score foods increase inflammation. But, switching to healthier carb sources with fibre and other nutrients helps reduce it.
Processed meat: although meat is a good source of protein, moderation is key. For instance, a 2017 study of over 1,200 people found that a meat-rich diet leads to an increase in pro-inflammatory markers—which can cause cancer and obesity.
Trans Fats: not all fats are created equal. Some cause inflammation, whereas others have an anti-inflammatory effect. The journal PLOS One says that trans fats promote inflammation and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These foods are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, making the oil solid at room temperature and risking damage to our cholesterol and arterial lining.
Sugar: the links between sugar and inflammation appears in many studies. One 2011 study of 29 healthy people found that 40 grams of added sugar in their diet led to metabolic complications, insulin resistance and a spike in inflammatory markers.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
There are plenty of nutritious foods that promote longevity. One diet that I’ve found to work is the Meditteranean diet which focuses on vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, wine, olive oil, grains and beans.
Research suggests this is a good diet because it contains sufficient antioxidants. Compared to North European and American diets, there’s a stronger emphasis on plant foods in this diet. The antioxidants help remove excess free radicals, which can damage our cells and cause inflammation. And by having more antioxidants, we cause far less damage to ourselves, which helps us age better.
While these practices sound perfect on paper, it isn’t easy to replicate them in reality. Making drastic changes would be unenjoyable, and it’s unlikely to help you in the long run. An easy way to start is through “micro-switches”, which are tiny habit changes at a time that won’t drastically alter your lifestyle so quickly. Here are some examples:
Switch to extra virgin olive oil
Add whole grain to your meals
Begin or end meals with a salad
Add more vegetable diversity to your menu
Try three servings of legumes each week (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
Replace meats with plant-based alternatives (plant burgers, sausages, etc.)
Replace sugary beverages with water
Replace beer or liquors with wine (two 5-ounce glasses per day for men and one for women)
Make it harder to eat unhealthy snacks, e.g., remove unhealthy snacks from your home
2. Exercise and Recovery
Whether you want to train for a purpose or reduce your risk of disease, your daily movement is a great place to start.
Exercise for 20 minutes a day
Less than half an hour of exercise can add an extra three years to our lives and reduce the risk of premature death by up to 28%. One reason is simply down to increased blood flow, raising oxygen levels in the body, helping prevent high cholesterol and other cardiovascular diseases.
Studies have also shown that more exercise leads to healthier telomeres. These are segments of DNA at the end of our chromosomes (like the plastic tips on shoelaces that keep them together). They prevent chromosomes from fraying or tangling with one another, which could cause genetic information to get mixed up or destroyed, leading to cell malfunction and increasing our risk of disease. This becomes a big deal as telomere decay affects cellular ageing as we get older. Exercise helps to stop this decay and increase our lifespan.
Outside of exercise, we should limit our time spent sitting. When it is, our body’s metabolism begins to slow, so we burn fewer calories, and our blood sugar level increases—this causes weight gain and other long-term health problems.
No matter how busy work is, you must change positions regularly at the desk. Every 30–60 minutes. You’ll notice a massive difference in how loose and relaxed you feel.
Get Enough Sleep
A lack of sleep—or poor quality sleep—creates a bundle of health problems. Inflammation, heart disease and obesity, to name a few.
Generally, sleeping less than 7–8 hours can have negative implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, respiratory disorders and obesity.
But don’t be fooled. Too much sleep can also cause problems; it could signify an underlying health condition or depression.
Personally, I’ve always preferred early mornings over late nights. I feel like it’s better to sleep early, wake up early, and get work done the following day than to push yourself through the night to try and get things done.
Diet and exercise are the two most significant factors depicting our longevity, but that’s not all. How we spend our time and enjoy our lives matters.
Build Strong Relationships
We can live around 50 percent longer by having stronger social connections, which also helps minimise our risk of heart disease and stroke through loneliness. Good relationships facilitate healthy ageing, and you can work on it by going to the places you feel most comfortable and slowly working on being outside of your comfort zone.
Enjoy the Sun
15–30 minutes each day in the sun benefits vitamin D absorption but also improves our mental health, immunity and self-rated happiness. It also reduces telomere decay (mentioned earlier) to help us feel younger and healthier for longer.
Mindful meditation can help us to live a longer life. It teaches us temperance and gives us time to practice nonjudgemental awareness — the practice of avoiding judgement for the things or people that cross your mind. There is some evidence to this: a study by the University of California saw positive effects on our telomeres after short term meditation which was likely down to lowered stress levels.
Personality traits—like receptiveness, conscientiousness and happiness—and general thought processes are good indicators of our vitality and longevity.
A study that tracked 1500 boys and girls into old age found a positive link between higher conscientiousness and longevity; the kids who had this trait lived around 11 percent longer than the others. If we’re conscientious, we’re self-disciplined, diligent, principled and goal-oriented. It’s an excellent personality stack to have.
Although it’s not entirely clear why this is the case, some research shows that conscientiousness likens to lower levels of the immune system-related biomarker interleukin 6 (IL-6), a pro-inflammatory cytokine.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to always put happiness first, not in a completely selfish way, but in a way that protects me from self-sabotage or damage from other people’s decisions. It has helped me avoid decisions I’d later regret and think for myself more than I used to.
A 2008 review of 35 studies found that happy people can live around 18 percent longer. But there’s no clear evidence as to why this is the case. But some scientists believe it helps reduce the health problems associated with stress — like a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, and a greater risk of a heart attack.
Stress and Anxiety
It’s difficult for people who are highly prone to stress or are naturally quite anxious, but research shows that knowing how to relax is another crucial factor for longevity. It seems like such a small thing to focus on, but every minute we can spend relaxed in every situation can make a positive difference.
The National Institute for Health & Welfare says heavy stress may shorten our lifespan by nearly three years and that men are at higher risk than women. When stressed, our cortisol level rises (the stress hormone), lowering the immune system and negatively affecting our heart health.
We can reduce these risks by dedicating time to “switching off”. And I don’t mean mindless scrolling or passive procrastination. I mean spending time in nature, laughing with a friend or doing an hour of yoga.
5. Preventing the Preventable
Longevity isn’t just about being actively healthy; it’s about avoiding and cutting what is unhealthy — or preventing the preventable.
Smoking: tobacco contains enough chemicals to easily prove that it’s a bad idea. Further, a 2013 study of one million people found that smokers lose at least ten years of life and are three times more likely to die early. While it’s proven to relieve stress in the short term, it’s not worth the long term trade-off of increased anxiety and tension, cravings, depression, and dopamine production.
Obesity: there are only a few things we are in complete control of. And our eating habits are one of them. One Japanese practice I’ve learned to adopt is called Hara hachi bu. It involves a “stop at 80 percent full” rule to stop you from overworking your body during digestion and other active processes.
Alcoholism: while there’s evidence that small amounts of alcohol may prevent heart disease, excessive drinking can increase the risk of early death by almost 20 percent, among numerous other health issues.
Ultimately, our choices are what we’ve got. We shouldn’t hope for a ‘get fit quick’ idea or magic pill to guarantee perfect health and longevity. But we should be responsible for making decisions that will lead our life one way or the other — and be accountable if it’s not what we hoped.
The reality is that longevity isn’t about good genes. It’s about the accumulation of sticking to the right habits every single day, continuously.