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The secret to living a long and healthy life has fascinated humans since pretty much forever. And while we're yet to find the philosopher's stone or a magic pill for longevity, evidence suggests there's still a lot we can do to stay younger, healthier, and happier.
The Science of Longevity
The science of longevity is really about 3 things:
- Increasing our Lifespan, ie: Living as long as possible
- Increasing our Healthspan: ie: the time we’re free from ill-health
- Slowing down the process of aging
I used to think these 3 things were mostly determined by genetics and other biological factors. But, as I was surprised to find out, this actually accounts for less than 7% of our lifespan. In other words, good genes only get us a small part of the way there and the rest is almost entirely within our control.
In fact, our daily routines and habits play a much larger role in helping us to live long and healthy lives. And most differences in how we age are down to the small choices we make from day to day.
As part of my health kick this year I've been thinking a lot about this. I suspect there are many things I should still cut out from my diet and lifestyle that are inflammatory, damaging, and largely unhealthy (Like all those takeaways I keep ordering and the gym sessions I keep skipping 🤷♂️)
So after doing a ton of research on longevity I've found that there are 5 areas we need to address if we want to live longer:
- Exercise & Rest
- Preventing the Preventable
The caveat - there’s a whole body of scientific literature on longevity and it would be impossible to cover it all. But this is a pretty good primer if this stuff interests you.
The 5 Factors Impacting Longevity
🍏 1. Diet
Most of the research seems to agree that the things we eat and drink have the largest impact on longevity. In particular, we should avoid inflammatory food and try to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet for the greatest health benefits.
Why is Inflammation Bad?
Inflammation is our body's way of healing and defending itself, and involves an increase in the production of immune cells, white blood cells, and cytokines (which coordinate the fight against infections). But long-term inflammation can lead to lots of health problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Inflammation is particularly damaging because we often don’t know something is wrong until far too late. Dr Andrew Luster calls it “a smoldering process that injures your tissues, joints, and blood vessels, and you often do not notice it until significant damage is done”. So it’s very hard to say exactly when or how (or even if) you will be affected.
But nearly all studies agree that we want to avoid stuff that causes inflammation and take action to reduce any inflammation we already have. And this is something we can control by eating the right foods.
Avoid Inflammatory Foods
Although many activities can cause some form of inflammation, our diet can be particularly harmful. Here are some foods we should try to avoid:
- 🌭 Processed Meat - processed meat, like sausages and ham, has been linked to an increased risk of premature death. The reason is that they're full of chemicals designed to increase taste and shelf-life that also alter our gut bacteria. These changes to the diversity of our gut microbiome can cause chronic inflammation and ill health.
- 🍭 Sugar - the link between added sugar and increased inflammation has been shown in lots of studies. In a 2011 study of 29 healthy people for example, an increase of just 40 grams of sugar in their diet led to metabolic complications, insulin resistance, and a spike in inflammatory markers (i.e. signs of inflammation).
- 🍞 Refined Carbs - these are essentially 'empty' calories as they've had all the fibre, vitamins and minerals removed from them. Examples of refined carbs include white bread, pasta, pastries, and a large percentage of the Western world's carbohydrate intake. Not only are refined carbs inflammatory, but their high glycemic index causes rapid increases in blood sugar levels, which makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight.🧈 Trans Fats - these are foods made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, making the oil a solid at room temperature. Trans fats are found in baked goods, fried food, and some spreads. Not only do these foods have a negative effect on our cholesterol levels, but the damage they cause to the endothelial cells that line our arteries is incredibly inflammatory. Left unchecked this can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
There are also lots of foods that we should be eating to promote longevity. And this largely involves following a Mediterranean diet of vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, grains and beans.
Research suggests that this diet is good for us because it contains lots of antioxidants. Antioxidants help us to get rid of excess free radicals, which are chemicals that damage our cells and cause inflammation. So by having more antioxidants we're going to cause far less damage to ourselves, which helps us to age better.
- 🥦 Vegetables - a diet containing a variety of vegetables reduces the risk of early death by up to 15%. This is because they are a great source of antioxidants, including polyphenols, carotenoids, folate, and vitamin C.
- 🍇 Fruit - a 2017 study found that eating more fruit reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health problems. In fact, the study says that approximately 8 million deaths worldwide could be prevented if people ate 10 portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
- 🥜 Nuts - a study that included over 7000 people found that having just 3 servings of nuts per week reduces the risk of early death by 39%. Again, research shows that this is because they contain a large number of high-quality antioxidants.
- 🐟 Fish - omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are regularly linked to longevity. In fact, a study from Harvard University found that adults who regularly eat healthy fatty acids are 27% less likely to face a premature death.
The Practical Implication
Although this is what the science says, life wouldn’t be that enjoyable if we literally cut out all meat, bread, pasta, sugar, etc., from our diet. Sure, we could do it, but it’s not something that I would find easy to do.
So, if that sounds like you too, the easiest place I’ve found to get started is to make what I call “micro-switches”. These are small dietary changes that don’t drastically change what you are already eating. For example
- Use an artificial sweetener instead of sugar
- Add a side of vegetables to your favourite meal.
- If you’re feeling hungry, try to snack on fruit or nuts instead of crisps or chocolate.
- Switch ‘white’ carbs for the ‘brown’ alternative e.g. white bread to brown bread.
- Instead of frying foods, try putting it in the oven instead. That way you can continue eating the foods you like, while enjoying the anti-inflammatory health benefits of eating healthily.
🏃♂️ 2. Exercise & Rest
Physical activity and getting enough sleep offers us an insane variety of health benefits. Whether we're looking to keep our heart and mind healthy or reduce the risk of disease, exercise and rest is probably a good place to start. And some research shows it can help slow the process of ageing on a cellular level, helping us to live longer.
Exercise for 20 Minutes (Daily)
Less than half an hour of exercise every day is enough to add an extra 3 years to our lives and reduce the risk of premature death by up to 28%. One of the main reasons for this is due to the increased blood flow raising oxygen levels in the body, which helps to prevent high cholesterol and other heart diseases.
Recent studies have also shown that more frequent exercise leads to healthier telomeres. Put simply, a telomere prevents the fraying and breaking apart of our DNA. This is a huge deal as we get older, because telomere decay is responsible for cellular ageing. By exercising we can stop this decay and therefore increase our lifespan.
When we're not exercising, it's important we don't spend too much of that time sitting. A (slightly alarming) 2011 study found that our life expectancy falls about 22 minutes for every hour we're sat down after the age of 25. It's apparently as bad as smoking. When we spend most of our time sitting down our body's metabolism begins to slow, so fewer calories are burned and our blood sugar level increases. This causes obesity and other chronic health problems.
This is partly why I use an adjustable electric standing desk (from Fully). I try my best to change my position every hour. I don’t always succeed, but I feel much better on the days that I do.
Get Enough Sleep
Lack of sleep (or poor quality sleep) can lead to all kinds of health problems, like inflammation, heart disease, and obesity. And sleeping just a couple hours less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep can increase the risk of early death by 12%.
On the flip side, sleeping too much can also cause us problems. Spending too much time in bed can be a sign of an underlying health condition or depression. So finding a middle ground when it comes to rest is best for longevity.
For me, I try to get 7-8 hours a night, and I’ll even reschedule stuff for the morning on days when I sleep later than expected. Improving the quality of my sleep is also something I find super important - here’s a video where I talk about why I’m now never tired:
☀️ 3. Lifestyle
Our diet and exercise habits have the largest effect on how long and healthy our lives are. But it's certainly not everything. How we spend our time and enjoy our lives is also a key factor.
Build Strong Relationships
The Longevity Project, which looks at the findings of an 80 year research project on living longer, made clear that building strong social connections is a key aspect of ageing well and preventing ill health. Research has shown that we can live about 50% longer by having lots of friends and can minimise our risk of heart disease and stroke by avoiding loneliness.
Enjoy the Sun
Spending just 15 minutes each day outside has a bunch of health benefits, like better mental health and a lower risk of disease. One study of over 2000 people even found a link between increased vitamin D (which we get from being in the sun) and a slowing down in how we age. Basically telomere decay falls (we talked about this stuff earlier), helping us to stay younger and healthier for longer.
There is some evidence to suggest that mindful meditation and quieting the mind can help us to live a longer life. For example, the University of California did a study that (again) saw positive effects on the health of our telomeres after meditating for some time. By being less stressed and keeping a positive state of mind, we're helping our body to stop telomere decay and unhealthy cell damage - perfect for those of us concerned about longevity.
🎭 4. Personality
It turns out that our personality traits (like being conscientious and happy) and general thought processes (like avoiding stress and anxiety) are potential indicators of how long we're going to live.
If we're conscientious, we're self-disciplined, diligent, principled, and goal-oriented. According to The Longevity Project, it's the best personality trait to have when it comes to life expectancy. Another study that tracked 1500 boys and girls into old age also found that higher levels of conscientiousness is positively related to longevity - the kids that had this trait lived about 11% longer than everyone else.
Although it's not entirely clear why conscientiousness leads to an increased lifespan, some research shows that this personality trait is linked to lower levels of the immune system related biomarker interleukin 6 (IL-6). This is pretty complicated stuff, but in simple terms lowering IL-6 levels helps reduce inflammation and other health risks.
Taking steps to create a happier life could also help us to live a longer life. In fact, a 2008 review of 35 different studies found that happy people may live up to 18% longer than less happy people. Unfortunately there is no clear evidence as to why this is the case, but some scientists think it helps to reduce the health problems we often associate with stress - like a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, and a greater risk of having a heart attack. So this is a great excuse to do something we enjoy and have a good laugh.
Avoid Stress & Anxiety
This is perhaps the most difficult change to make, especially if we're easily stressed or naturally quite anxious. But, research shows that being more relaxed is another key factor for longevity. The National Institute for Health & Welfare says that being under heavy stress may shorten our life expectancy by almost 3 years, although men are at greater risk than women. When we're stressed our cortisol levels rise (cortisol just controls our body's stress response), which lowers the immune system and negatively affects heart health. We can reduce these risk factors by making sure we put aside some time for ourselves and cutting out any work from our life that doesn't need to be done.
✋ 5. Preventing the Preventable
Longevity isn't just about actively doing stuff that's healthy, but it's also about avoiding the stuff that's unhealthy. In other words, preventing the preventable:
- 🚬 Smoking - tobacco smoke contains a ton of chemicals, causing heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. A 2013 study of 1 million people found that smokers lose at least 10 years of lifespan and are 3 times more likely to die early compared to non-smokers.
- 🎅 Obesity - this is the 5th leading risk of global deaths (at least 2.8 million die from obesity each year). People who are obese are at increased risk of nearly all causes of death. We can control our eating habits by eating until we're 80% full, a Japanese diet practice called 'hara hachi bu'. Or, we can try intermittent fasting where we only eat for a few short hours everyday, helping us to limit the number of calories we eat. Something studies have shown to extend our lifespan.
- 🍺 Alcoholism - although there's evidence that small amounts of alcohol may prevent heart disease, excessive drinking increases our risk of an early death by almost 20% and a number of other health problems. In the UK, it's recommended we drink no more than 14 units per week, which is about 6 pints of beer or 7 glasses of wine.
In the future we're likely to see new methods that let us live longer and healthier lives, but right now this is where we're at. Science is yet to bring us an anti-aging pill or some other breakthrough that guarantees old age.
The good news is that living a long and healthy life isn't just about luck and good genetics - this only makes up a tiny fraction of living longer. Instead, the reality is that longevity is mainly about doing the small things right every single day.
What about the fancier stuff?
If you’ve got any interest in the world of longevity, you might’ve come across other stuff like taking GLP inhibitors, metformin, gliclazide, and a load of other things that people like Dave Asprey and Tim Ferriss do to keep themselves healthy.
Dave Asprey’s books are a good way of getting acquainted with this stuff, but to be honest I don’t think there’s quite enough evidence to begin doing this stuff before we’ve sorted out the basics (which most of us suck at anyway). But I’m planning to do a blog post in the near future that explains these fancier ways to increase our healthspan too, so stay tuned.
- The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer
- The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life
- Fast This Way: Burn Fat, Heal Inflammation and Eat Like the High-Performing Human You Were Meant to Be
- Lifespan: Why We Age - And Why We Don't Have to
- The Inflammation Spectrum: Find Your Food Triggers and Reset Your System
- Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life
- Longevity Blog
- Harvard Health Blog
- Life Extension