While it would be nice to have a simple blood test (biomarker) that would tell us how long we’re going to live, it’s not likely ever going to be that simple. The factors that influence longevity are many – including genetics, resiliency, environment and even chance. Where and how we live – culture and geography – also play a role. Robert J. Pignolo, PhD published an article this month in Mayo Clinic Proceedings where he reviewed all available research on PubMed from 1980 to 2018 and came up with the following list of “Factors Associated with Geographic Clustering of Long-Lived Populations:”
Eating in moderation (small- or moderate-portioned “regular” meals), mostly plant-based diets, with lighter meals at the end of the day
Purposeful living (eg, life philosophy, volunteerism, “hard work” or “work ethic”)
Social support systems: interactions with family/friends, laughter/humor
Exercise, especially walking, gardening
Other nutritional factors: goat’s milk, red wine, herbal teas
Maintenance of a healthy weight (ahealthy body mass index/BMI)
Other possible factors: sunshine, adequate hydration, naps
My only disappointment was that there was no mention of sleep or broccoli on this list, and anyone who knows me knows I am evangelical about the benefits of both. “Naps” was listed, but I believe a full 8 hours of solid restorative sleep at night is the key. My husband, a fan of sunshine and hydration, will be quite satisfied to see two of his favorites on the list. Since walking is my preferred form of exercise, I was elated to read this sentence, “Increased physical activity is associated with improved life expectancy, with a benefit of 4.5 years at the highest level of 22.5 metabolic equivalent hours per week or more, equal to vigorous walking for at least 450 minutes per week.” In a nutshell: about an hour long walk per day can help us live 4 and a half years longer!
An interesting subpopulation, Seventh Day Adventists, are known to have greater longevity than people with similar characteristics in the same geography, and some of the factors contributing to this improved health are their abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, a vegetarian diet, lower levels of stress hormones, and spirituality. Pignolo states, “life span is increased in regular churchgoers, whatever their faith.”
Several other cohorts of individuals who have extended life spans have some broad characteristics in common – eating in moderation and mostly plant-based diets, lots of physical activity within their daily life, purposeful living, and rich social support.
Markers of longevity you can explore with your physician include insulin, glucose, hemoglobin A1c, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and weight.
Two hot topics in the anti-aging/longevity world – and in my office - are: supplementation with anti-oxidants and fasting. Unfortunately, the level of fasting necessary to extend life is unlikely to be sustainable over the long-term, and to date, there is no strong evidence showing anti-oxidants help extend life.
Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight confer tremendous benefits for longevity. We see weight gain start to occur in women and men in their late 40s and early 50s, so this is a crucial time to be extra diligent about maintaining weight. It’s much easier to “control/prevent” it than “fix” it.
The importance of social connections is beginning to be quantified. We could have guessed this was helpful, but now we’re starting to measure just how helpful. Studies have shown that lack of social support is as harmful to humans as smoking cigarettes.
To summarize thoughts on how to live long and well:
Eat small, plant-based meals
Have a purpose, and maintain a spiritual practice
Laugh and spend time with friends
Keep a healthy weight
Get outside, drink lots of water, and nap!