It’s disappointing that we can’t drink from the fabled fountain of youth, but the good news is that most of us are born with a good shot at living a long life: Only about 25 percent of age-associated disease is genetically determined. That means that our environment and lifestyle choices are much stronger predictors of how long we will live. In most cases, those are factors that we can significantly influence—and they alone could be the ticket to dancing circles around your ninetieth birthday.
Little lifestyle tweaks may not feel like much, but they have a powerful payoff. Consider the potential of exercise to up your longevity: A couch potato’s heart and lungs carry about 2 percent less oxygen to the rest of the body a year after age 30, while a same-age person who burns 3,000 calories a week through aerobic exercise can expect to lose only half of one percent of his heart-and-lung capacity each year (at least until age 80 or 90). Since every cell in the body needs oxygen to function and stay healthy, this single difference in lifestyle works out to a potential 50-year difference in life expectancy.
Most of what you can do to live a long and healthy life is common sense—and some of it is just plain fun. Though some suggestions may seem simple, their impact can be tremendous.
People who exercise regularly live about five to seven years longer than those who are inactive. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, strengthens your bones. Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity on most days.
Watch Your Weight
Obesity, which is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other health conditions, reduces life expectancy—but the greater risk of dying early isn’t limited to only those who are technically obese (defined by a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or greater). People with a BMI greater than 25 also have a higher death rate than people whose weight is in a healthy range. (Experts hypothesize that they may also engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and overeating, more often.) Talk to your doctor about what’s healthy for you—ranges vary depending on gender and height.
People who smoke for their entire adult lives, exposing themselves to hundreds of toxic chemicals, die about 10 years earlier than they would if they had never smoked. The good news is that quitting smoking can add most of those years back.
Get Enough Sleep…
Getting a good night’s sleep can help reduce stress, keep your weight in a healthy range and give you energy for the day ahead. Aim for at least seven hours per night. When you sleep enough, your body repairs and regenerates its tissues and strengthens your immune system.
…and Take Naps
Napping for 30 minutes per day could cut your risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent, according to research from Harvard School of Public Health. Scientists suspect a daily nap reduces stress hormones in the body. (Just don’t regularly rely on these to make up for not clocking enough hours at night.)
Use Caution If You Drink Alcohol
While some studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcohol (one drink per day or less for women, two drinks per day or less for men) may contribute to longevity in some people, beer, wine and spirits certainly have their downsides. Beyond the health risks associated with excessive consumption of alcohol, it ranks among the top five sources of calories for American adults, contributing to weight gain. If you are someone who enjoys a good glass of vino, simply make sure you’re doing so in moderation.
Enjoying a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and seafood is linked with longevity. These foods deliver vitamins, minerals and heart-healthy fats that boost health and help prevent disease.
Chronic stress sets the stage for many health conditions. Stress probably exerts its adverse effects through triggering an inflammatory reaction of our immune system. Meditation, massage and gentle forms of exercise like yoga, for example, can help reduce stress.
Get Vitamin D
People who have higher vitamin D levels may live up to five years longer, according to a study done by researchers at King’s College in London; they concluded that the part of our chromosomes that shorten with age may not reduce as rapidly as it would if levels were lower. The best source of vitamin D is good, old-fashioned sunshine, so aim to spend 15 minutes outdoors most days. Shiitake mushrooms, fortified cereals and oily fish like salmon and tuna are some good food sources of vitamin D, but getting it from a variety of places is essential, says Mark Liponis, M.D., Canyon Ranch’s corporate medical director. You can talk to your doctor about a vitamin D supplement if you think you’re low.
Make Intimacy a Priority
Studies suggest that having sex more frequently may extend your life. Researchers at the University of the West of Scotland at Paisley found that couples that committed to having more sex for two weeks logged lower blood pressure levels during stressful situations, such as public speaking, compared to couples who abstained from sex or touched but didn’t have intercourse. Low blood pressure levels mean your heart isn’t working as hard to pump blood throughout the body, which helps prevent heart disease.
Hold Hands, Cuddle and Hug
Cuddling counts, too. In one study, researchers at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City trained 18 couples in improving their awareness to their partner’s mood by touching his or her neck, shoulders and hands in caring, but non-sexual, ways. Another 18 couples weren’t given any guidance. Within one week, the couples coached in warm touch had higher levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone; in addition, the men in those pairs logged lower levels of amylase, a stress indicator. Lowering your stress levels can help reduce your risk for a variety of health conditions.
Wear a Seat Belt
Seat belts save lives: More than 12,000 people survived car crashes in 2010 alone because they were wearing seat belts.
Floss Your Teeth
Flossing each night can remove the bacteria that might otherwise cause inflammation in your gums. That inflammation activates your body’s inflammatory response, raising your blood pressure (among other things) and increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke. This can also potentially damage brain tissue, increasing your risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s.
People with strong social networks (family, friends, clubs and groups) live longer lives than those who are not connected to others. Researchers hypothesize that the unhealthy impact of the stress hormone cortisol is lessened when people have friends and family to lean on.
Don’t Skip Check-Ups
Getting regular check-ups can help identify potential problems early. The earlier a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure is diagnosed and treated, the healthier you’ll be.