The average life expectancy in the U.S. is about 78.5 years, yet there are more than 80,000 centenarians (people who are older than 100 years) in our country—the largest number of any country in the world. While genetics clearly play a factor in longevity, more and more medical experts maintain that there are a host of other factors that are more important in determining how long we will live. As respected Canadian nutritionist Leslie Beck says in her book, Longevity Diet: The Power Of Food To Slow Aging And Maintain Optimal Health: “What matters most in the aging process is what happens to our genes after we inherit them.” And it’s not just about a long life, but also about living a more dynamic life—able to stay active and relatively free from pain and illness.
Experts are calling those in their 80s or older, who have cognitive abilities and energy similar to people decades younger—SuperAgers. Researchers who have studied centenarians around the world say you can dramatically increase your odds of joining the ranks of the SuperAgers and collecting those 20+ additional years with lifestyle changes that aren’t all that hard or all that mysterious. Here are six steps to prolonging your life.
Keep close friends. That unhappy people generally don’t live as long as happy ones is hardly startling news. But one of the most damaging forms of unhappiness is loneliness. “Maintaining tight friendships as you get older is associated with better health and greater happiness—both of which are key ingredients for living to 100,” writes Science Journalist Marta Zaraska in her book Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. Her research revealed that eating a Mediterranean diet—rich in fruit and vegetables; olive oil in place of butter—may reduce your chance of premature death by 21%. Having a large network of friends, though, will cut it by 45%. Having a happy marriage will pretty much halve it.
Cut down on red meat. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to become a SuperAger, but substituting high quality plant protein (think lentils, almonds, chickpeas, potatoes and, yes, kale) for some servings of red meat will lower your risk of premature death in a meaningful way.
Don’t play hooky from your annual physical. Preventing disease or at least catching illnesses in their early stages will make living longer possible. To do that it’s critically important to see your doctor every year (or on whatever schedule your physician specifies). And don’t skip out on those medical screening tests (like colonoscopies, prostate exams, mammograms, etc.) that your healthcare provider recommends.
Sit less. “You may have heard it before, but sitting is the new smoking,” reports Sally Wadyka writing for the website thehealthy.com. “The latest research shows that too much time on your behind can be as deadly as nicotine. So if you want to live to 100, don’t smoke (obviously) and don’t fall prey to ‘sitting disease.’ One study found that leisure time sitting (like watching TV or surfing the web) has a big impact on your risk of dying younger. Those who spent more than six hours of leisure time a day sitting had a 19 percent higher mortality rate than those who spent less than three hours of their leisure time on the couch.” So when someone tells you to take a hike, do what they suggest. A University of Washington study found that a walkable neighborhood was a key contributor to living a long life.
Find your “ikigai”. In Japan, millions of people have ikigai (pronounced Ick-ee-guy)— a reason to jump out of bed each morning. Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, believes that ikigai is an important factor in longevity. Ikigai has its origins on the Japanese island of Okinawa, home to a population with what is believed to have the largest percentage of centenarians in the world. Ikigai can be work, or a hobby or volunteer service or any other activity that gives you purpose in life.
Scoop the snow off your neighbor’s driveway. Marta Zaraska says that helping others enhances your sense of well being, which in turn improves your health. You can derive the most benefit from helping others if your efforts are local and involve direct personal contact. And if you are combining your help with a bit of exercise, the benefits are multiplied.