The myth about longevity is that we have no control over how long we live. False. We do have some control — even though we all know some people who lived healthfully but died suddenly… and others who didn’t take care of themselves and lived on and on. It is easy to fall back on the idea that we can’t escape our heredity, but our genes aren’t as important as you might think.
While there is no one secret to longevity, we can adopt aspects of healthful aging into our lives and improve our chances of adding years to your life or even reaching the century mark.
DOES A FAMILY HISTORY OF LONGEVITY HELP?
Having long-lived ancestors and siblings does increase your odds of living to old age, but it doesn’t guarantee longevity. Reason: Your genes, the biological programs that govern the activity of your body’s 70 trillion cells, may influence only half of the factors involved in aging, according to the Okinawa Centenarian Study. That means we can have a direct effect on our aging process by focusing on the other factors.
Proof: Americans are living longer than ever, although not as long as people in other countries. The number of centenarians (people who are age 100 years or older) in the US is at an all-time high of about 77000! Surprise: Centenarians often are in better health than younger seniors. About 20% of centenarians are “escapers,” people who have entirely avoided serious diseases, and 40% were escapers until at least age 85, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article.
ADD YEARS TO YOUR LIFE BY…
Protecting your genes. A strong nutritional foundation safeguards our genes. Crucial to this protection is vitamin B, which can help repair genes and slow gene damage. Advice: I recommend that most adults take a high-potency multivitamin each day that contains at least 50 milligrams (mg) each of vitamins B-1 and B-2, 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid and 50 mcg to 100 mcg of vitamin B-12. If your multivitamin is low in B vitamins, take an additional B-complex supplement so that you get the amounts listed above. These amounts are safe for everyone except those taking methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis or as a chemotherapy drug — because high amounts of B supplements can interfere with these treatments.
Eating healthfully. Nutrients serve as the building blocks of our biochemistry. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can impair our normal biochemistry and increase the formation of age-promoting free radical molecules.
A study in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that centenarians consume, on average, about two-and-a-half times more antioxidant-packed vegetables than seniors ages 70 to 99. Incredibly, the centenarians ate five times more veggies than typical 40-year-olds. All those antioxidants help protect against the types of cell damage involved in aging. Similarly, studies of Seventh Day Adventists in California — who do not smoke or drink but do eat lots of vegetables — have found that they have higher levels of antioxidants and tend to live longer. Bottom line: Eat your veggies — lots of them.
Taking supplements. It’s difficult to study the specific effects of supplements over 80 to 100 years when so many other variables affect longevity. But both animal and human studies demonstrate the health benefits of supplements.
Recommendation: In addition to taking a multivitamin, there’s convincing evidence that a combination of the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid (300 mg to 400 mg daily) and the amino acid acetyl-L-carnitine (800 mg to 1,200 mg daily) has a rejuvenating effect, making people feel more energetic. These two nutrients are involved in the body’s production of energy, which powers every cell in the body. They are safe for everyone, although people with diabetes or seizure disorders should take them under a doctor’s supervision.
Research published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a related supplement, L-carnitine (2 grams daily), which helps transport fatty acids into the mitochondria (cell structures that convert nutrients into energy to power the cells), reduced mental and physical fatigue in centenarians. This supplement is safe for everyone.
Magnesium (400 mg daily) helps maintain the length of telomeres, the protective tips of chromosomes. Resveratrol (100 mg twice daily) activates the SIRT1 gene, which is involved in longevity. And vitamin C (1,000 mg daily) enhances immunity and reduces inflammation, both of which can contribute to longevity. It is safe to take all of these supplements.
Eating less. Animal studies dating back to the 1930s have shown that nutritionally complete, but calorie-restricted, diets (generally with 30% fewer calories than national recommendations) often increase life expectancy by up to 30%. In human terms, that’s roughly an extra 22 years, which can bring people very close to the century mark. Studies of people growing up in Okinawa, Japan, during the 1940s and 1950s found that they consumed about 11% fewer calories than their estimated calorie requirements (about 2,000 calories daily for men and 1,600 for women) until middle age, which contributed to greater longevity. Guaranteed benefit: Eating less will help you maintain a normal weight and lower the odds of developing diabetes and heart disease. Important: Only 30% of centenarians are overweight.
It takes great willpower to maintain a diet with 30% fewer calories than what feels “normal,” but eating less than you do can be an important first step. Assuming that you aren’t underweight, I recommend a calorie-reducing compromise — at each meal, eat until you feel 80% full. You may feel hungry initially, but you’ll soon adjust to consuming less food.
Continuing to learn. Even more than physical health, mental sharpness (such as memory and the ability to make decisions) is the most likely predictor of independence among people in their 90s and over 100 years of age, according to a JAMA article. Researchers say that some deterioration in cognitive function is inevitable as we age but that building a brain “reserve,” or extra brain power, can offset part of this decline. Mental activity builds your brain’s reserve. Be a lifelong learner by taking challenging classes…reading and discussing difficult material…and exposing yourself to new and provocative ideas. All of these activities increase connections among brain cells.
Exercising. The more exercise you do, the better. A study conducted at King’s College London in England found that physically active people have healthier cells than those who don’t exercise. Researchers found that exercise lengthened telomeres, the tips of DNA strands, which usually shorten with aging. Recommendation: If you are not physically active, start by walking for 10 minutes daily. Gradually build up speed, time and distance over a few weeks or months.
Getting enough—but not too much—sleep. Seven hours of sleep nightly is the amount most strongly associated with longevity. Getting less sleep — or more — is associated with shorter life spans. People who sleep less than five hours don’t give their bodies enough time for physiological recovery, and that may lead to metabolic dysfunction. Metabolic dysfunction also can result from habitually sleeping for more than eight hours.
Maintaining a spiritual foundation. Having a spiritual foundation is associated with longer life. I find that my own spiritual foundation relieves stress. You can develop your inner life through prayer and/or meditation.
Being optimistic. Centenarians tend to be optimists who feel that they have control over major decisions in their lives. Helpful reading: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman.
Connecting with others. Strong ties to family and friends play a big role in longevity. Studies show that married men tend to live longer than bachelors. Research also has shown that having friends is even more important than having family in terms of living longer. My prescription: Take time to thoroughly enjoy the company of family and friends!