Ray Sahelian, MD
All of us want to have longer and healthier lives, and while some of us are dealt a better hand than others in lifes genetic lottery, there are many ways we can maximize the potential we are born with.
All of us want to have longer and healthier lives, and while some of us are dealt a better hand than others in life’s genetic lottery, there are many ways we can maximize the potential we are born with.
People who age successfully are not just lucky–they’re motivated to take care of themselves. There are many practical steps we can all take on a daily basis to not only add years to our lives, but to also make the most of each and every moment. These steps involve mental outlook, diet, exercise, sleep, and supplements.
Top 10 Tips For Longevity
1. Don’t worry, be happy
Embrace the philosophy: “It’s not what happens to me, it’s what I make of it.” When you go about your day with a positive attitude, people around you will notice, give you positive feedback, and make you feel even better. Finding a satisfying career will also help you stay happy, and make you feel motivated to get out of bed each morning.
People with a bright outlook may live longer than those who take a dimmer view. Researchers in the Netherlands found that older men and women judged to have optimistic personalities were 77 percent less likely to die of a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular cause over the course of a nine-year study period than those with pessimistic dispositions. This was regardless of factors such as age, weight, smoking, and whether they had cardiovascular or other chronic diseases at the start of the study.
According to recent scientific research undertaken by the University of California, San Francisco, and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stress can ultimately lead to a decrease in longevity. Chronic psychological stress is associated with accelerated shortening of the caps, called telomeres, on the ends of chromosomes in white blood cells. Telomeres shorten with each cell replication, and cells cease dividing when telomeres shorten too much.
As telomeres promote chromosome stability, the team investigated the theory that psychological stress affects telomere shortening and thereby contributes to a decrease in longevity. The study included 39 healthy, premenopausal women who were primary caregivers for a child with a chronic illness, with 19 age-matched mothers of healthy children as the control group. Stress was measured with a standardized questionnaire, and telomere length was measured in participants’ blood samples. Within the caregiving group, the longer that a woman had been a caregiver, the shorter the length of telomeres. In the 14 women with the highest stress scores, telomeres averaged 3,110 units in length, while the 14 with the lowest stress had telomeres that averaged 3,660 units.
As telomeres shorten by an average of 31 to 63 units per year, the scientists estimated that the 550-unit shortening in the high-stress group translated to six to 17 additional years of aging.
2. Watch Your Weight
Cutting calories may do more than help you shed excess weight. A low calorie diet may also slow age-related changes in the heart’s genes that can lead to chronic disease. In one study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, “middle-aged” 14-month-old mice were fed either a normal diet or one restricted in calories. When the mice reached 30 months of age, or the equivalent of 90 years of a human life span, the researchers analyzed their heart tissue. The hearts of mice on the low calorie diets showed nearly 20 percent fewer age-related genetic changes and also appeared to have less DNA damage than those of mice on regular diets. Restricting calories also inhibited potentially disease-causing changes in the immune system and suppressed apoptosis, or programmed cell death.
To achieve longevity, there’s no need to go on a starvation diet - just be aware of limiting excess caloric intake.
3. Keep Cool
It appears that cooking at high temperatures creates changes in molecules that may not be properly used by the body, and can create toxic substances within foods. When possible, eat well-washed, raw, organic fruit and vegetables.
People may be able to lower their risk of heart disease and diabetes by consuming cool foods, or dishes cooked at relatively low temperatures, such as salads and tuna fish, according to preliminary research conducted by Dr. Helen Viassara of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Foods cooked at high temperatures spurred the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), compounds in the blood that stimulate cells to produce inflammation. While AGEs are normally produced in the body at a slow rate, they can be toxic and form more quickly when food is heated to high temperatures. Inflammation is associated with heart disease, but those with diabetes are thought to be particularly vulnerable.
People who consumed foods cooked at lower temperatures had lower levels of both AGEs and inflammatory proteins than people who consumed the same foods cooked at higher temperatures. After six weeks, levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and concentrations of the inflammatory protein C-reactive protein (CRP) had also risen among those consuming the diet high in AGEs, and declined among those in the reduced AGE group. TNF-alpha and CRP are both markers showing increased inflammation.
4. Keep Moving
It is never too late in life to start exercising. Physical activity prolongs life and improves mental function by inducing the growth of capillaries in the brain, which in turn helps many nutrients reach neurons. Regular exercise is especially important later in life as the aging process leads to a decrease in blood supply to the brain.
Physical exercise also encourages deep sleep, which gives the brain a chance to consolidate memory, rebalance hormones and brain chemicals, and prepare us for a new day.
Stretching regularly is helpful in keeping joints and ligaments supple. Remember, exercise doesn’t just happen - you have to do it on purpose. Why not set daily goals for walking? Many people discover that it’s easier to stay motivated if they don’t exercise alone. In addition to walking, try gardening, taking dance lessons, cycling, or an activity at your local gym.
5. Butt Out
On average, smokers die ten years younger than non-smokers. If you need another reason to kick the habit, Californian scientists have discovered that nornicotine, a byproduct of nicotine - the substance that makes cigarettes so addictive - causes a type of chemical reaction in the body similar to that which occurs when sugar is scorched or food goes bad. This reaction is thought to play a role in diabetes, cancer and other diseases.
Almost everyone is aware of the harm cigarette smoke causes to lung tissue, but not as many people realize that smoking causes damage to arteries, and this harm occurs relatively quickly. Short-term cigarette smoking is associated with endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is the layer of cells that lines the heart and blood vessels.
A study conducted at the Athens University Medical School in Greece examined the effect of orally administered ascorbic acid (vitamin C) on cigarette smoking-induced endothelial dysfunction. In this double-blind, randomized, crossover study, 19 healthy subjects had the brachial artery (the artery in the arm) examined by high resolution ultrasonography before and 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after smoking a cigarette. Measurements were performed on two different days, two hours after oral administration of two grams of ascorbic acid or placebo. After smoking, blood flow dropped to less than half of the baseline value. In the placebo group, blood flow increased to 70 percent of baseline value in 90 minutes, but in the ascorbic acid group blood flow increased to 70 percent of baseline value in half the time. The researchers concluded “oral administration of ascorbic acid attenuates endothelial dysfunction after short-term cigarette smoking by shortening its duration.”
For those who are not able to stop their smoking habit, it would seem that taking vitamin C partially mitigates the harm caused to the blood vessels. A dose of 100 mg to 300 mg of vitamin C taken once or twice a day is recommended.
6. Feel the Love
Research has consistently shown that those with strong connections are better able to resist illness. People who age successfully keep their minds, relationships, and passions in high gear. Instead of sitting in front of television sets, they keep in contact with friends and relatives.
In order for us to feel truly fulfilled, it helps to cultivate healthy connections in several ways. On a personal level, we can connect with fellow human beings through friendship, physical intimacy, romance, marriage, and family. We can also satisfy our need for connection through loving pets or by belonging to something larger than ourselves such as a religious, humanistic, philosophic, or community group. The more ways we connect, the happier and healthier we become.
7. Sleep Deeply
A good night’s sleep enhances energy, mood, vitality, sex drive, and reduces the risk of developing chronic medical conditions.
In order to develop better sleeping patterns, expose yourself to morning light for at least 10 to 20 minutes upon waking. This helps shorten the sleep cycle so that when you go to bed at night it will be easier to fall asleep.
Caffeine from sodas, chocolate, coffee, or certain teas, including green tea, is best avoided after dinner. Some people may be so sensitive to caffeine’s stimulant effects that drinking coffee even at lunch can interfere with sleep.
Try using earplugs to muffle noises and ensure an uninterrupted sleep. You may be surprised how many noises can potentially disturb your sleep, such as a dog barking, traffic, airplanes flying overhead, birds chirping outside your room in the early morning, or a noisy bed partner. If you are woken prematurely by early morning light, try wearing eyeshades to bed.
Finally, try using relaxation techniques when you get to bed. When lying on your back, shake and loosen a leg and foot. Take a few, slow, deep breaths by expanding your belly. Shake and loosen the other leg and foot, then return to your abdomen for a few more relaxed breaths. Proceed with this relaxation to your arms, shoulders, and neck. Now relax your facial muscles - especially the muscles around the eyes and mouth. Remember to return to your breathing after relaxing each muscle group. Before you know it, you’ll be drifting into a deep slumber.
8. Play Mind Games
Keeping your mind young can slow the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and memory and intelligence can improve through mental training. Brain cells (neurons), just like muscles, are dynamic structures. When the mind is kept active, brain cells grow and dendrites (the tree-like communicating arms between neurons) lengthen and form additional connections with neighbouring neurons. These serve to improve mental function.
Researchers have discovered that the length of dendrites increases proportionally to a person’s education and lifestyle. Those with a university education who continue to stay mentally active have longer dendrites than those with less education, and an intellectually sedentary lifestyle. Animal studies also confirm the “use it or lose it” theory. Rats placed in an enriched environment (maze learning) show an increase in dendrite growth and enhanced problem-solving ability. When rats are moved to an impoverished environment, dendrites regress.
9. Get Back to Nature
Green trees in the neighbourhood as well as sunshine in the home are linked to longevity, according to a five-year-long study on Japanese seniors led by Dr. Takehito Takano of Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Yushima. The research results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2002, linked a green neighbourhood to a healthier, longer life because it “increases the chances of walking outside of the residence, which helps to maintain a high physical functional status.”
So, whenever the weather permits, take a walk in the woods or a garden. Humans were not meant to spend most of their time indoors. We were meant to be active and productive in the outdoors, exposed to fresh air and sunshine.
10. Supplement Your Health
There is currently no evidence that taking supplements or hormones will make us live longer. However, intriguing research is pointing to the potential of certain supplements to have anti-aging effects. It will take many years or decades to be certain which supplements are most helpful, in what dosage, and in what combination. In the meantime, three specific nutrients are at the forefront of such research.
Finally, make sure you drive safely, wear a seat belt, and do not use a cellphone while driving. Studies confirm that the way we age is often a matter of choice, not just genes or luck. Besides reducing your odds of disability, the steps you take now will help keep you passionate about life as you age. Living well always beats the alternative.