Is there a magic formula to achieving healthy longevity?
The short answer is NO.
We know that there are behaviours that will help — and there are behaviours that will harm. But we don't always know which ones are the "right" ones, which ones are scams, which ones will really help.
We are bombarded every day by recommendations and suggestions through advertising, newspaper and internet articles, scientific research, doctors and alternative medical gurus:
- eat this one food
- don't ever eat that
- exercise daily
- don't smoke
- just walk for 10 minutes a day
- take this vitamin or that
- run a marathon a year
- keep alcohol consumption to a minimum
- "no pain, no gain" when exercising
- never do this exercise
- always do this exercise.
The list is endless — which just makes it all the more confusing.
Do any of these work? If so, which ones? Fortunately, research has given us some excellent clues.
First and foremost: We have to separate the fads and the quacks from the science. Some things are truly out of our control, while other things are controllable.
What are the things we cannot change?
A genetic condition occurs when you inherit an altered gene from your parents that increases your risk of developing that particular condition. It is difficult to escape our DNA. If there is a history in your family of any particular disease or condition, it does make it more likely that you, too, will have to deal with the same fate.
Some examples of genetic conditions include:
- Heart disease, including Heart Attack and Stroke;
- Alzheimer's Disease;
- High blood pressure;
- Cancer; and,
Changes or mutations that occur in the DNA sequence of a single gene cause another type of inheritance known as single-gene disorders. There are thousands of known single-gene disorders that are inherited. Here are just a few:
- Marfan Syndrome (a disorder of connective tissues);
- Cystic Fibrosis (causes the production of abnormally thick mucus, leading to the blockage of the pancreatic ducts, intestines, and bronchi and often resulting in respiratory infection);
- Sickle Cell Anemia (an abnormality in the oxygen-carrying protein haemoglobin found in red blood cells);
- Fragile X Syndrome (a range of developmental problems, including learning disorders);
- Huntington's Disease (degeneration of the brain cells and causing chorea and progressive dementia); and,
- Hemochromatosis (an iron disorder in which the body simply loads too much iron).
Knowing that you may have an inherited disease or a single-cell disorder does not automatically mean that you will get it (although some are obvious at birth). It provides you with information and may help you decide how to treat your condition.
For more about this topic, see Genetics and Our Health: How much can we control.
Environment, especially in your younger years
Few of us have a choice in where we are born, but the environment to which we are born and grow up in will affect our health over time.
Consider these scenarios of where you might have grown up:
- In a large, industrially-polluted city;
- On a farm;
- In an isolated village in the mountains at 6,000 feet elevation; or,
- In a town where the water was polluted and getting healthy drinking water was difficult.
Where you work also might affect your health, such as:
- In an industrial plant that uses strong chemicals which you either breathe or have to touch;
- A physically demanding job — on your feet all the time or perhaps work requiring heavy lifting; or,
- In a constantly noisy environment.
Or your parents taught you in some way to ignore your health:
- You weren't encouraged to brush your teeth and see a dentist once a year;
- Your mother believed that she could take care of you and did not wish to pay for a doctor's visit. You developed a disliking for seeking medical assistance;
- Your parents could not afford medical care and so avoided it; or,
- You grew up in a small, isolated area and medical and dental care was unavailable.
What can we change or do better?
There are four areas where you can make a difference. Much of it is basic and obvious, yet it is amazing how quickly we forget these simple lessons.
We can control how much we exercise, what we eat, when and how we sleep, and develop techniques to deal with stress.
“There’s no question that exercise is the biggest anti-aging medicine there’s ever going to be — it’s really huge,” says Gordon Lithgow, chief academic officer at the California-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He suggests that the best way to promote longevity and improve long-term health is easy, and it can be done without spending a lot of money. “...exercise is the biggest anti-aging medicine there’s ever going to be — it’s really huge,” Lithgow says. 1
“Hands down, nothing compares to exercise,” says Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “The great thing is that most people can do it....”
If exercise is the key, how much do we need and how often?
Dr. Michael Joyner adds: "Even 10 to 15 minutes per day provides measurable rewards. ... Anyone [exercising] more than [an hour a day] is doing it for things other than health."
Some work by Iowa State University epidemiologist Duck-Chul Lee suggests that even running 10 minutes per day could decrease your mortality risk by about 30 percent. In short, the research and the experts tell us that it's fine to train for the Ironman, but it isn't necessary for health and longevity.
Exercise has been proven to be helpful in combatting many health conditions — including heart disease, stroke, depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and arthritis.
See a list of articles about exercise and how it helps various health conditions at the end of this article.
Sleep deprivation hampers your mood, your cognitive skills, and your insulin levels. It may change your metabolism. Most of us can handle the occasional "bad night," but if you are suffering from regular, routine sleep deprivation, it is harming you in many ways.
Sleeping well is a good way to keep your body healthy for the long haul. When we sleep, our brain gets caught up on maintenance.
A research team at the University of Rochester Medical Center published a study in 2013 which concluded that "sleep helps the brain clear out metabolic waste that accumulated during waking hours, providing a kind of restorative maintenance."
What is the magic number of hours required? Most researchers believe that 6-10 hours is necessary, depending on age and stress levels.
But wait, there's a little catch. Ironically, too much sleep (somewhere around 14 hours a night) may indicate a health problem and it has been linked to various conditions, including stroke, obesity, depression, and heart disease.
For more discussion on sleep, see Insomnia: Habitual Sleeplessness.
Research seems to be very clear about how much exercise and sleep we need to be healthy. Eating a proper diet, however, is much more difficult to obtain because nutrition is, to quote Dr. Lithgow again, "just a very difficult science."
We know that diet makes a difference, but the complexities of nutrition associated with any one person can be problematic. Some things are obvious: too much sugar or too many calories is unwise; we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables. In the end, most of us have to "go it alone" when it comes to deciding what we will eat. But common sense — and a little research on your own — may pave the way to success.
For most of us, it is a matter of trial and error: What foods make us feel good? What foods make us feel unwell? What foods give us energy? What foods seem to go straight to our hips? Trial and error; a food journal might help.
For more on diet, see Metabolism, Calorie Intake, and False Promises: Getting Through the Dieting Maze.
Coping with Stress
Everyone has to deal with stress, whether it be our personal life or our work situation. We can change some of these things.
Perhaps you are in a dangerous job and you would prefer a change. Some of the most dangerous jobs are:
- Fishers and related fishing workers;
- Logging workers;
- Aircraft pilots and flight engineers;
- Structural iron and steel workers;
- First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service and groundskeeping workers, construction trades and extraction workers;
- Electrical power-line installers and repairers;
- Police patrol officers and Firefighters;
- Operation engineers and other construction and mining equipment operators;
- Taxi drivers and chauffeurs;
- Firefighters; and,
Some people enjoy high-pressure jobs and would not give it up, but if you are in a job that is causing you a great deal of stress, it may be worth considering a change.
It can be challenging to eliminate stress from your life, especially personal issues such as child-rearing, marital problems, aging parents, or health issues. There are services available to help and sometimes we may need to access them. The secret is not to be alone. Ask for help (your doctor, a counsellor, a friend) if you need it.
Connect with People and Have a Purpose
My father, Donald Sheldon Overturf, taught me to work hard and have a purpose. Service to others was his goal and as a teacher, administrator, and educator, he helped people every day of his life. He was my greatest mentor.
I learned from him that helping others could be a very rewarding experience. It has been my guiding light throughout my life.
Everyone will find a different way to connect with others and find a purpose to their life. Choosing to do what we love to do is the first step. As soon as we are bored or lonely, it should be a "sign" to alter our course. If you can't change your job, at least find activities to do in your non-work time that is enjoyable and relaxing.
For more about finding meaning to life, check this out: Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning
To read about specific health conditions and how exercise can help, link to any of the articles below:
- Exercise and Allergies
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Asthma
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Cancer
- Exercise and Chronic Pain
- Exercise and Circulation
- Exercise and COPD
- Exercise and Dementia
- Exercise and Depression
- Exercise and Diabetes
- Exercise and Heart Disease
- Exercise and Hypertension
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Exercise and Mood
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Pain vs. Burn: Will it ever stop hurting?
- Exercise and Parkinson's
- Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise and Stroke
- Exercise and Viruses: Exercise Immunology
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
Thanks to The Washington Post for much of this section from an article titled The Longevity File: A Strong grip? Push-Ups, What Actually can help you live to a ripe old age by Christie Aschwanden. ↩︎