BY LAUREN CAHN/JAN. 12, 2021
The life expectancy of an American baby born in 2018 is 78.7 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease causes the most deaths in the United States, with cancer, accidents, chronic lung diseases, and stroke making up the remainder of the top five. Now, compare that to the year 1900, when babies born could expect, on average, to live about one-third fewer years, with average life expectancy being 47.3, CDC data tabulated by Carolina Demography detailed. Back then the top five leading causes were influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal diseases, heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.
Whereas earlier generations had a relatively high risk of dying prematurely from acute illness or infection, someone born today stands a much greater chance of surviving such challenges to reach not only adulthood but also middle age and beyond — at which point heart disease and cancer start becoming more prevalent.
Just as increasing longevity from where it stood in 1900 required decreasing the risk of acute illnesses, increasing longevity from where it stands today requires decreasing the risk of each of the leading causes of death. That's why you're more likely to live longer if you have any of the following habits.
Elite athletes live longer, so taking your workouts seriously could help
Men who have trained as elite athletes live longer than their brothers who have not undergone such rigorous physical training, according to a 2017 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study authors surmised that the longevity of the elite athletes was probably most attributable to the fact that elite athletes, as part of their training regimen, had spent more years taking care of their health and being highly physically active (which has been proven to improve longevity). The elite athletes also tended to be nonsmokers. This makes sense given smokers die, on average, at least 10 years earlier than nonsmokers (via CDC).
Interestingly, though, a 2020 study found that Olympian athletes were not more likely to live longer than their non-Olympian peers, and the study authors believe this may reflect the extreme rigor and stress of Olympic-level sports. In other words: While physical activity generally bestows positive health benefits, there comes a point of diminishing returns eventually.
Walking regularly can help you to live a longer life
The study that found Olympian athletes do not enjoy a longer lifespan than their non-Olympic brethren, taken along with a wealth of research proving that physical activity improves longevity, suggests there may be some ideal level of physical activity when it comes to helping humans live longer. But what is that level?
The answer may be 8,000 steps per day, according to a 2020 study out of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Calculating how many steps were taken per day by nearly 5,000 American adults aged 40 and older, the researchers found that taking 8,000 steps per day, versus 4,000, was associated with a 51 percent lower risk of death from any cause, as the American Cancer Society explained. And it didn't matter how fast people walked, whether they worked up a sweat, or anything other than just the raw number of steps they took. The takeaway here would appear to be that if you'd like to live longer, you should make sure to get those steps in.
Moderately restricting your calories is a science-backed way to live longer
Although many people diet, most short-term diets do not lead to long-term weight loss, per Healthline. However, counting calories is a viable method for arriving and staying at a healthy weight. In fact, restricting calories for weight loss dates back to the 1930s via (The Saturday Evening Post). Although this is a decades' old practice, some degree of calorie restriction is associated not only with weight loss but also with increased life expectancy, according to the National Institute on Aging.
The catch is that calorie restriction is not a temporary fix. Reaping its benefits requires a lifetime commitment. And many who follow it will tell you, flat out, it's no picnic. But as with physical activity, the key to using calorie counting and restriction as a means to improving longevity may be moderation. Indeed, a 2019 study found that two years of "moderate" calorie restriction significantly improved cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors in adults not already dealing with obesity.
Eating at least five servings of fruits and veggies per day is a life-extending habit worth exploring
You've probably heard that eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day is associated with living a longer and healthier life. That ubiquitous recommendation was made as part of a food-industry advertising campaign, but in 1991, it was endorsed by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (via Chicago Health). Regardless of its origins as an ad campaign, the recommendation has, over the years, withstood the rigors of a number of scientific studies seeking to challenge it.
In 2014, The BMJ published a meta-analysis of 16 existing clinical studies (comprising more than 833,000 people) addressing whether eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day could lower the risk of heart disease. It was revealed that people who ate at least five servings per day lowered their risk of dying from heart disease by 20 percent, compared with those who ate fewer than five servings per day.
Including nuts in your diet has been proven to support longevity
If you enjoy eating nuts and are looking for a way to boost your chances of living longer, it would be a good idea to find a way to incorporate even more of them into your diet. Research studies have consistently linked nut consumption to improved heart health and a lower risk of dying prematurely from cardiovascular diseases and conditions, including heart attacks and blood clots (via Mayo Clinic). Nut consumption has also been linked to less chronic inflammation, which plays a role in many life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, according to Healthline.
For example, a 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at nut consumption in about 76,000 women and 42,000 men enrolled in a large-scale health data collection effort and found that those who ate nuts regularly were less likely to die of any cause during approximately 30 years of follow-up. The researchers noted that deaths from heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease, in particular, were less likely with increased nut consumption.
Maintain good oral hygiene and you'll live longer
According to the Mayo Clinic, your oral health is a window into your general health and may be a good predictor of your life span. These dual notions have been proven time and again through scientific studies, including one from 2011, published in the Journal of Aging Research, which found that the simple acts of brushing teeth, flossing daily, and seeing a dentist for checkups were significantly associated with a "decreased risk of mortality."
A 2016 study published in the journal Periodontology 2000 found that the number of teeth you keep as you get older may also be a good predictor of how long you will live. The study authors attributed the correlation between number of teeth and length of life to the fact that tooth loss often occurs coincident to circumstances associated with shorter lifespan, including chronic illness and the lifestyle choices that may make chronic disease more likely (via Dentistry Today). For example, diabetes can leave gums and teeth at risk, but the risk of diabetes may be modifiable by making healthier lifestyle choices.
Spending time in the sun could help you live to a ripe old age
Sunbathing increases your risk of skin cancer, but a 2016 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine may encourage you to still get some sunshine. The study kept track of 30,000 women for approximately 20 years, and the researchers eventually found those who spent more time in the sun tended to live longer and have less incidence of heart disease. That being said, the sunbathers were still more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer and more likely to die of cancer. However, the researchers hypothesized that just by living longer, they had increased their risk of developing certain cancers and dying as a result.
What the researchers were unable to determine was whether sun exposure actually contributes to longer life expectancy or if it is merely coincidental with some other factor that has yet to be identified (for example, perhaps people who sunbathe are also less likely to smoke cigarettes). It is clear that many of the other habits that are associated with longevity are consistent with spending time outside in the sunshine, though more research is needed. In the meantime, be sure to keep using sunscreen!
Teach yourself to cook and you'll potentially be cooking for a long time to come
Cooking your own meals is associated with a longer life span, according to a 2011 study out of Taiwan that was published in Public Health Nutrition, a Cambridge University journal. As part of the study, nearly 2,000 adults over the age of 65 were monitored for a 10-year period, and those who cooked most frequently were more likely to be alive at the end of the study. Those who cooked more frequently were also more likely to be non-drinkers and non-smokers who remained moderately active (with twice weekly walking or shopping excursions) and ate less meat and more vegetables.
Overall, the effect was stronger for women than for men, but that may be because the women of any given household, including those in the U.S., tend to cook more frequently than men. It also may be that women are already predisposed to living slightly longer than men (via PRB.org). What is clear is that cooking for yourself can help you take control of your diet much more readily than ordering takeout food. As the executive editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch wrote in 2017, "The more you cook for yourself, the healthier you live."
Gardening can extend your life in a variety of ways
Gardening is one of the healthiest hobbies you can cultivate, according to Healthline. For one thing, it gets you out into the sunshine, which is associated with living a longer life, according to a 2016 study out of Sweden published in the Journal of Internal Medicine. That may contribute to higher levels of vitamin D in your body, which is associated with stronger bones, a healthier immune system, and a lower risk of many cancers. Additionally, having lower blood serum levels of vitamin D is associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, and dementia, per Healthline.
Gardening also counts as exercise, particularly when it involves digging, raking, and shoveling. And, of course, exercise is associated with greater longevity (via Harvard Health Blog). Exercise is associated with better moods and improved mental health, but gardening, itself, has been identified as a form of exercise that is particularly well-suited for its benefits on brain functioning. For example, people with depression tended to show improvement in their depression symptoms after 12 weeks of a gardening intervention, according to a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing.
Your furry friend beside you might be a key to living longer
People who have a trusty canine companion have a better chance of living longer, according to a 2019 study published in the scientific journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. One reason may be that dog owners have been found to have a reduced risk from cardiovascular events (and heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S.). And as demonstrated by a separate 2019 study, dog owners also tend to have better outcomes when they do suffer a "major cardiovascular event," like a heart attack.
These studies found that heart attack and stroke survivors who lived alone (without other people) had a reduced risk of death if they owned a dog, and dog ownership is associated with a 24 percent risk reduction in all-cause mortality. According to the American Heart Association, the reasons for this may include the fact that interacting with dogs can help create a better balance between stress hormones and feel-good hormones. It can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol, ease depression, and improve fitness.
Reading is fundamental (to longevity)
We always knew that reading was "good" for us, but who knew that reading books could help you live longer? Well, that's precisely what a study out of Yale found. Published in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine in 2016, the study followed 3,635 adults over 12 years and found that reading books contributed to a "23-month survival advantage" and an overall 20 percent reduction in risk of death from all causes.
"While most sedentary behaviors are well-established risk factors for mortality in older individuals," the study authors wrote, reading books has proven to be an exception. The reason may be twofold. First, reading books promotes "deep reading," an involved process by which the reader identifies connections between the reading material and the real world. Second, reading promotes empathy and emotional intelligence, both of which are cognitive processes associated with longer life expectancy. Read up!
Safe driving could help you live longer
In 2018, accidents were responsible for 167,127 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. This made unintentional injuries the third leading cause of death in the country. About 10,000 of annual accidents are speed-related vehicle crashes, David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), revealed in 2019, and many of them might have been preventable. "We can reduce this toll through effective, high-visibility enforcement and traffic engineering measures," Harkey explained. "Reasonable speed limits also have a crucial role to play, as our new study demonstrates."
Maximum speed limits, which are set by states, have been rising since the mid-1990s, with at least 41 states now allowing speeds 70 miles per hour (mph) or higher. And for each 5-mph increase, there has been an associated 8 percent increase in car crash fatalities, according to the 2019 study referenced by Harkey. "Of the 37,133 people who died on U.S. roads in 2017," an estimated 5 percent would "still be alive if speed limits hadn't changed," IIHS explained. While you can't change the laws, you can avoid speeding and hopefully add years to your life.
Healthy relationships and a broad social network support living a longer life
A 2010 study published in PLOS Medicine confirmed what may have already been intuitive to many: The quality and quantity of one's social relationships is linked to life expectancy. The meta-analysis of 148 studies, consisting of over 300,000 participants, suggested that people with stronger social relationships were 50 percent less likely to die prematurely. Science writer Marta Zaraska, who wrote about the study in her best-selling book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, told Health Digest that although many people lack such a network, it's a fixable problem, albeit with some effort.
As to whether it's worth the effort, a 2020 study demonstrated that social isolation is associated with higher levels of inflammation, which is associated with a number of life-threatening illnesses and conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as a reduced life expectancy.
Mental health matters in terms of longevity
A 2011 paper by Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, pointed out that Americans with major mental illness face a significantly shorter life expectancy — to the tune of 14 to 32 years fewer than the rest of the population. This may be directly related to the fact that mental illness can make it tough to take good care of your physical health. In fact, people dealing with mental illness are at least twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and 50 percent more likely to have a BMI in the obese range, as compared with the rest of the population.
But it's not just major mental illness that can interfere with your living the best and healthiest life possible. Even minor depression has been associated with a higher risk of death, according to one study. The takeaway here is to nurture your mental health as you would your physical health, including getting enough sleep, cultivating healthy relationships, and seeking support when you need it.
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