In 1521 Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in search of the mythical fountain of youth; those who drank from it or bathed in it were said to be returned to their youth. Some 500 years later, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on a longevity guru whose disciples wear T-shirts emblazoned Don’t Die and who buy supposedly rejuvenating vitamins and supplements from him by the bushel.
What is real in our search for longevity? I assume that most of you, like me, are interested in healthy longevity – I would rather be well and active into my 90’s than live into my 100’s in a frail dependent state.
The maximum lifespan of any species, including our own, seems to be fixed. The longest documented human lifespan was 122 years, and the next oldest were 119. About 120 would seem to be as much as we can hope for.
In the famous Blue Zones, 5 scattered sites in Italy, Japan, Greece, Costa Rica and California, many people live healthy and active well into their 90’s, and much of what we know about healthy longevity came first from studying these populations, backed up by many other studies.
While heredity clearly plays a role – the best single predictor of a long life is having long-lived parents - only some 30% of your chance for a long healthy life comes from choosing the right parents. Much is under our control.
Diet is a critical factor. If longevity is very important to you, prepare to be hungry. There is incontrovertible evidence in mice and considerable data in humans that calorie restriction lengthens lifespan.
What you eat is important. Contributing to a long and healthy life is eating a plant-based diet, heavy in fruits and vegetables with little or no red meat. Get your protein from fish and nuts, and use olive oil in place of butter. This type of diet leads to less heart disease and less cancer.
Move. Regular exercise both leads to less premature death and better quality of life. While any amount of exercise is much better than none, more is better. Even walking 30 minutes a day will pay dividends, but exercising more and longer is even better. Do not forget strength. Aerobic exercise will do the most to extend life, but strength training prevents falls and injuries and strengthens the bones.
Don’t smoke. If you do, quitting now will do more to improve your health than anything else you can do.
Minimize your alcohol intake. There is soft evidence that moderate drinking may reduce heart disease, but it increases a variety of other disorders. One drink a day is probably a wash, but more is clearly bad.
Get enough sleep. Sleep is when we rejuvenate, and try for at least 8 hours a night.
Socialize. Spending time with friends and family and participating in group activities is very common in the Blue Zones and has been shown to be associated with less depression and better physical health.
See your doctor once in a while. Many chronic diseases that shorten life, including hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, have simple treatments that prevent premature death and worse diseases. A few preventive measures such as colonoscopy and immunizations have good data supporting their use.
Pills? Not many. As I wrote a while back, there is now data supporting the use of a daily multivitamin to stave off dementia. Softer evidence favors the amino acid taurine and the diabetes pill metformin; both are in early stages of testing and I do not take either. Most other supplements enrich their sellers but do not help you.
There are no quick fixes to let you live longer and better, but there are many things you can do.
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