Longevity: It’s Not All About the Kale

They say that 100 is the new 60.  But, they don’t tell you how to get there. Of course, the genes we inherit play an important part in longevity. But studies suggest that genes constitute about one-third of the factors leading to long life.  The other two-thirds have to do with lifestyle and chance (The Longevity Project).  We are all about diet here, and diet plays a huge part in our life span.  But, what we discovered in other areas of lifestyle might surprise you.

diving into water

Conscientiousness is the way to go.  You may think that relaxed people live longer. You might be surprised to learn then that this is not necessarily true.   In a multi-year study, researchers Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin found that conscientiousness beat out all other personality type when it comes to life expectancy. “The qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree are the qualities that help lead to a long life.” The reason for this is that a conscientious person is more likely to make healthier and safer choices, including the decision whether or not to smoke, to reduce stress, to drive too fast, to follow doctors’ orders or to eat healthy and exercise.

Working hard is not necessarily a negative.  We all know stress can be very bad for us, but it is important not to confuse stress with hard work.  The Longevity Study found plenty of hard workers who lived long lives. “Skeptics may wonder if hard workers really are enjoying life,” the authors write. “We found that productive, hardworking people (even in old age) . . . .  tend to be happier, healthier, and more socially connected than their less productive peers.” “There’s a misconception about stress,” Dr. Friedman said. “People think everyone should take it easy.” Rather, he said “if people were involved, working hard, succeeded, were responsible —no matter what field they were in — they were more likely to live longer.” Many people, of course, have to stay in a job they don’t like or don’t do well in. That’s bad stress, and the researchers found those people were more likely to die young. But, on the opposite side of spectrum is the positive effect had on those that work hard and feel productive.

Don’t be a “Yes Man.”  Cheerfulness, optimism, extroversion and sociability may make life more enjoyable, but they won’t necessarily extend it, according to the The Longevity Project.  The researchers say that “thinking positive” isn’t necessarily healthy. ” “If you’re cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don’t consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, then those setbacks are harder to deal with,” Dr. Martin said. “If you’re one of those people who think everything’s fine — ‘no need to back up those computer files’ — the stress of failure, because you haven’t been more careful, is harmful. You almost set yourself up for more problems.”

But, find your Zen.  We love meditating and practicing mindfulness.  So, we were thrilled to find that being mindful can actually have a positive effect on your lifespan.   A study at University of California-Davis found people who regularly practice meditation have on average about 30% more activity of the enzyme telomerase than the controls did, which is related to aging.

Above all, be social.  When asked what the single strongest social predictor of long life was, Dr. Friedman and Dr. Martin both gave a resounding answer: a strong social network.  Widows outlive widowers (in part because women tend to have stronger social networks). There is also some research that suggests that when we are social and around family and friends our immune function is improved.

And remember – sitting for long periods takes time off your life. Research shows that sitting for long bouts of time put people at risk for shorter lifespans and other health risks. An Australian study of 8,800 adults with no history of heart disease found a correlation between the amount of time spent sitting in front of the TV and your risk of premature death and heart disease. Participants who watched four or more hours of TV per day were nearly 50 percent more likely to die from any cause than those who limited their TV consumption to under two hours.

And, being an extreme athlete won’t add years.  We love exercise and understand its impact on health (and, thus, to longevity), but it is also interesting to note that extreme exercise is not a predictable indicator of longevity.  According to The Longevity Project, pushing yourself to extremes is not necessarily going to lengthen your life span, particularly if you don’t enjoy it. While “we can say with certainty that regular jogging increases longevity . . . you don’t actually need to do that much to reap the benefits.”

But, diet will.   Many studies looking at the lives of centenarians look at what they eat. Diet plays such an important part in our lifespan that it deserves its own article.  So, next week we will delve deep into the role of diet on longevity.  For this article we will just highlight the diet of one group of centurions –  those that reside in the Mediterranean. Their diet is primarily based in whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy fats like olive oil (all ingredients on which we base our soups).  This diet has been linked to a healthier older age, lower risk for heart disease, and even protection against memory loss. Friedman and Martin also found that lifestyle factors like diet play a role.

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