Signs of aging appear deeper than just your skin and hair. Did you know you can see it in your DNA? That’s right, your own genetic makeup indicates your age through the ends of your chromosomes, known as telomeres. These telomeres shorten as you age, which is associated with easier sickness and worse chances of survival. You can keep them longer by the way you live. Better diet and some activities can protect your DNA from the influence of aging, leading to a longer life.
Your personality can influence the way your body ages. Research has shown that people with a high conscientious score stand out as living longer, happier, healthier lives. In this context, “conscientious” means hard-working, orderly, rule-following, and self-controlled. Although some people have a tendency to be more conscientious than others, personality can also change through experiences, relationships, and your environment.
Good friends matter in ways you may not expect. It turns out that strong social relationships can improve your health in the long term. When you show care for others, your body is flooded with hormones that relieve stress. And the help and advice of good friends can improve the quality of your life, as well as how long you live. That’s true for both the giver and the receiver; both having good friends and being a good friend in return can improve your chances of living a longer life.
Humans are social creatures. The people you choose to spend your time with tend to influence your own choices and behaviors. Picking friends who have healthy habits can lead to healthy habits in yourself. And the opposite is true, too; when friends eat unhealthy foods or smoke, you are more likely to do the same. Surround yourself with people whose habits you admire, and soon enough you will make admirable choices as well that can extend your lifespan.
Nobody should be surprised that smoking harms your health. But seeing how many years this nasty habit shaves off your life puts things into perspective. Multiple studies have been performed on the lifespan of smokers. The World Health Organization sums them up by showing how many more years you get to live by quitting. If you quit around age 30, you can expect an extra 10 years of life. Quitting around 40 gives you an extra nine years of life. Quitting around 50 gives you another six years of life. Quitting around 60 adds three extra years to your lifespan.
Napping is popular in many parts of the world. From Spain to China, a short snooze in the middle of the day is common practice. And some research suggests this sleep might help you live longer, too. One large study of more than 23,000 people found that occasional nappers have a 12% lower coronary mortality ratio. And the risk for people who nap all the time is three times lower still. It seems to be true for all adults, but working men enjoy a particularly strong benefit from daily naps, the study found.
Plenty of research confirms that this diet helps people live longer. What is the Mediterranean diet? It’s a traditional approach to eating focused on fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, and whole grains. It has been shown to lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. And it lowers inflammation, too, which might be the secret to this diet’s life-lengthening power.
The people who live in this tiny island prefecture of southern Japan once had more people over the age of 100 than any other place in the world. Although modern living has changed that, we can still learn a lot about longevity from the traditional Okinawan diet. It consists of about 50% more yellow and green vegetables than other Japanese diets (already very healthy), as well as more meat and edible seeds. Perhaps more important is the calorie restriction of this traditional diet. Long-lived Okinawans who have been studied experienced mild but prolonged dietary restriction for about half of their adult lives.
This isn’t a weight loss scheme. Fasting diets have been found to lengthen the life of various animals, from snails to rodents to monkeys. Could they lengthen your life too? Calorie-restricted diets have become one of the hottest areas of research for scientists looking for a way to help people live longer. The key is to get all your essential nutrients without all the usual calories, and may require intermittent fasting (only eating at certain times a day, or every other day, for instance). This is an emerging science, and no long-term studies in humans have been performed. But people who voluntarily follow calorie-restricted diets have been studied, and the studies are promising; these people have been found to have lower markers for diabetes and cardiovascular health problems. However, some studies have shown that they may experience negative health effects too, including less interest in sex and a difficult time staying warm in cold environments. Research continues in this interesting field.
Living with your intimate partner offers several advantages that may boost your lifespan. There is the emotional and sexual intimacy, the enjoyment of shared resources, and the protection from loneliness that comes from regular companionship. Also, intimate partners often remind one another to keep up their health by going to the doctor and maintaining healthy lifestyle choices. And marriage in particular offers many healthy advantages, like emotional assurance, financial stability, and, in some countries, special legal protections.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight isn’t just another item on this list—it’s a cornerstone of long life. People who keep their bellies trim have reduced risk of some of humanity’s deadliest diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Struggling with weight loss? It’s a common problem. Paying careful attention to the calories you eat every day—especially your consumption of processed sugar and saturated fat—can help you see what changes you need to make. For people who are overweight or obese, changing your diet can add extra healthy years to your life. However, if you have certain medical problems like diabetes, it may help to discuss a diet plan with a certified dietitian.
Would you take a pill that lowered your risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and depression? Regular exercise can do all of that, and help prevent some types of cancer, too. US health authorities recommend two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. But even getting half of that can add years to your life. People who exercise for even half the recommended amount can add almost two years to their life expectancy. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still benefit from exercise. Although their capacity for exercise is reduced, even people who are over 100 years old can enjoy positive benefits from age-appropriate exercises.
There’s been a rumor—sometimes supported in medical studies—that drinking alcohol moderately might extend your life. Wine especially gets singled out for its supposed benefits. While it’s possible that moderate drinking (two drinks or less per day for men, one or less for women) may have health benefits, there are still health risks. For instance, women who drink moderately stand a higher risk of breast cancer and bone fractures. Two things are clear: If you want to improve your health and don’t drink, don’t start. And if you’re drinking more than moderately, ease back or quit to protect your health and lengthen your life.
Going to church might improve your lifespan, especially if you go frequently. During 16 years of follow-up, women who reported attending church services more than once a week were found to have a 33% lower mortality risk. These women had better odds against death from cardiovascular problems and cancer. This was described in a 2016 study published in JAMA, one of the world’s top medical journals. These data came from a large study pool of more than 120,000 women. The results agree with several other empirical studies, suggesting it may be wise to worship with others frequently to live a long, healthy life.
Forgiveness is not always easy. Being hurt or betrayed by someone you trust is deeply painful. But the longer your resentment lingers, the greater the toll it takes on your health. Studies show that those who are able to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it can lower their own blood pressure and ease their own stress. One small study found that seniors who let go of their resentment experience less depression and improve their short-term health. Many experts now believe that forgiveness is a choice and a skill. One popular model suggests that as a first step, you refrain from saying bad things about the person who wronged you. For more help, find a therapist knowledgeable about forgiveness.
Americans have largely gotten the message—nine out of 10 drivers and passengers use seat belts, according to a 2019 survey. The 10% who don’t are liable to pay a heavy price for their carelessness; they make up about half of all car crash deaths. On U.S. roads, those nylon and polyester straps save about 15,000 lives every year.
Helmets are just as crucial for people who ride bicycles or motorcycles, or for certain sports. Safety experts estimate that wearing a helmet cuts cyclists’ risk of head injury by half. For skateboarders, skiers, snowboarders, and anyone who risks falling during a high-intensity sport, helmets are essential safety gear. They protect your brain from concussion and brain damage, and also help protect your life in the event of a serious collision.
Sleeping soundly feels great. It helps preserve your physical health and emotional wellbeing. And it may extend your life, too. Researchers have found that those who regularly sleep from 6-8 hours a night have better cardiovascular health and are more likely to be free of certain cognitive problems. A study comparing adults ages 85 to 105 to younger people found that these older adults slept more regularly and consistently than those younger others. So if you want a better chance of living to 100, give yourself a regular bedtime. That said, a huge study of nearly 37 million subjects found no connection between insomnia and a greater risk of mortality. While getting good sleep may help you live longer, a lack of sleep is unlikely to actively shorten your life.
Stress is inevitable, and we all experience it now and then. But daily, high stress loads over time can wear you down and leave you vulnerable to a variety of diseases. All of that stress may put you at higher risk of a shorter life, too. A study of more than 1,300 middle-aged adults found that the more often and the more intensely people with chronic illness experience stress, the more likely they are to live shorter lives than others. While we all experience some stress, it can be controlled. Natural stress relief can be found in traditional health practices like meditation, yoga, and deep abdominal breathing exercises.
Finding and knowing your purpose—it can be easier said than done. But the reward for achieving this goal can be felt in both your physical and mental health. More and more studies have shown that people with a clear sense of purpose seem to be better protected from cardiovascular problems including heart conditions. They also have a decreased risk of death compared to people who report a low sense of purpose. This was recently shown in a large population of U.S. seniors, suggesting you never outgrow your need for purpose in the world.