There are nearly 100,000 centenarians (people aged 100 or older) in the US alone. What’s their secret? Genetics most certainly influences longevity—but lifestyle matters as well. Harvard researchers published a study that identifies five lifestyle factors that have an enormous impact on health and longevity. People who adhered to all five could expect to outlive those with unhealthy habits by more than a decade!
Longevity Is More Than Dumb Luck
To determine the role lifestyle plays in longevity and premature death, the Harvard team sifted through 30 years of data on 78,865 women enrolled in the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study and 44,354 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. A healthy diet, regular exercise, optimal weight, no smoking, and moderate drinking conferred dramatic benefits.
People who maintained all five habits during middle age were 82 and 65 percent less likely to die of heart disease and cancer, respectively, than those with unhealthy lifestyles. Women with the healthiest habits at age 50 could expect to live 43.1 more years, compared to 29 more for those in the latter group. For men, the difference at age 50 was 37.6 versus 25.5 years. In other words, a healthy lifestyle conferred 12–14 extra years of life.
What drug has such broad and powerful effects? What surgical procedure? Nothing comes close!
The study’s conclusion—“Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults”—should be a wakeup call.
Let’s look at the five factors identified in the Harvard study, plus a sixth one that I strongly believe should have been included, and how you can make each of them a permanent part of your life.
1. High-Quality Diet
A good diet goes without saying, but with so many competing regimens out there, it’s hard to know what a high-quality diet really is. The Harvard team used the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index to rate participants’ diets. Scores increased with higher intake of fruits, vegetables, greens, beans, whole grains, dairy, protein, seafood, plant protein, and mono- and polyunsaturated oils; and decreased with higher consumption of refined grains, sodium, and empty calories.
You may not agree with everything on this list, and that’s okay. There’s no one diet that’s right for everyone. Any regimen that emphasizes whole foods, lots of vegetables, adequate protein, healthy fats, and avoidance of junk food and sugars—whether it’s Paleo, Weight Watchers, Whole30, vegetarian, or a diet of your own invention—is fine.
I lean towards a Mediterranean diet because it isn’t overly restrictive and offers enough options to satisfy most palates. Plus, its health benefits have been demonstrated in hundreds of studies, including a 2018 review showing that it protects against frailty in older people. I also recommend including regular servings of “super foods” with such as salmon, olive oil, leafy greens, berries, avocados, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, onions, and high-fiber and fermented foods.
If you need help sticking with a diet, invest in a consultation with a nutritionist. A health-enhancing diet isn’t something you jump on for a few weeks, lose a few pounds, and then go back to your old ways. It is a lifetime commitment.
I don’t need to list the extensive benefits of exercise—you know them already. But I do want to emphasize the importance of physical activity for healthy aging. Regular aerobic and resistance exercise increases brain volume and reduces risk of dementia. It maintains strength, flexibility, and balance, which staves off frailty, prevents falls, and keeps us active and mobile. It prevents age-related declines in immune function. And it literally slows down cellular aging. Exercisers have longer telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of DNA that shorten with age and poor health.
Lifelong activity, or at least beginning in middle age, is most protective, but it’s never too late to start. As with diet, the hard part is consistency—more than half of gym and health club members rarely use the facilities they pay for. However, working out doesn’t require a gym, nor does it require that much time. Although the Harvard study’s benchmark was 30 minutes of brisk walking or other moderate activity, there is plenty of evidence showing that short sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provide all the benefits of longer workouts.
An example of HIIT is 30–60 seconds of all-out running, cycling, or other intense activity, followed by a minute or two of walking or slow pedaling, repeated for 10 minutes. Another is the 7 Minute Workout (available for free at the app store on your smartphone), which provides both cardio and major muscle group training. This and similar apps have instructional videos and guide you through 12 30-second exercises such as lunges, pushups, wall sits, etc., with a 30-second rest period between each exercise. “No time” is no excuse—seven to 10 minutes and you’re done.
Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, and consider paying a personal trainer to learn proper technique. After that, whether or not you get off the couch is all on you.
3. Optimal Weight
More than 70 percent of US adults are overweight, and nearly 40 percent are obese. Obesity is a tremendous health risk, and because it is linked with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, depression, many types of cancer, and other chronic diseases, it is clearly associated with premature death. Cleveland Clinic researchers report that obesity is responsible for the loss of 47 percent more life-years than smoking!
Belly fat, which lies deep within the abdomen and around the organs, is particularly harmful. It releases fatty acids, hormones, and other chemicals that increase insulin resistance and inflammation, and take a serious toll on your health. Even if you are not obese, a big belly is bad news.
I know from personal experience how hard it is to lose weight. And the older you are, the tougher it gets—by then, as the joke goes, your body and your fat are really good friends. Metabolism begins slowing in our 20s, and unless we change our eating and exercise habits, weight gain is inevitable. Get serious about weight loss. Your health depends on it.
4. & 5. No Smoking & Moderate Alcohol
There’s not much to add about smoking, other than to acknowledge that it is a stubborn addiction. I know of no easy solution, but acupuncture and neurofeedback have helped some of my former patients kick the habit. If you can’t quit on your own, get help.
The Harvard researchers also consider moderate alcohol intake a healthy lifestyle factor. The benefits of alcohol, which include reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cardiovascular death, have been recognized for decades, and this study adds increased longevity to that list. Moderate is defined as one five-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer, or shot of hard alcohol for women and up to two drinks for men. This is not to say you should start drinking for your health—this is one habit you can skip—but if you drink, do so only in moderation.
Alcohol, like tobacco, is addictive, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that geriatric alcohol abuse is a growing problem. Overuse can sneak up on you, so be honest with yourself, acknowledge if you have a problem, and get help if needed. Alcoholism not only wrecks your own health, cognition, and safety, but also hurts those close to you.
6. Nutritional Supplements: A Longevity Bonus
I propose adding a sixth lifestyle factor: nutritional supplements. The majority of Americans have an inadequate dietary intake of one or more micronutrients required for health and longevity, and older people are especially vulnerable.
A basic supplement program should include a daily multivitamin with above-RDA levels of antioxidants and B-complex vitamins, extra vitamin D 2,000–5,000 IU, and omega-3s 1,000 mg EPA/DHA.
For a more comprehensive regimen, consider adding resveratrol 100 mg and nicotinamide riboside 250 mg once or twice a day. These two compounds activate proteins (sirtuins) and enzymes (NAD+) that mimic the protective effects of caloric restriction, boost metabolism and cellular energy, guard against DNA damage—and are the focus of promising research on aging and longevity.
Get Serious About Lifestyle Changes
Although the benefits of lifestyle changes aren’t breaking news, this study is the first comprehensive analysis to quantify longevity gains—and even the researchers were surprised by the significance of the impact.
I hope this research gets the attention it deserves. Doctors need to prescribe nutrition, exercise, and weight loss programs just as they do medications, insurance companies need to reimburse for them, and patients need to get serious about making needed changes.
Just one in 12 Americans adheres to all five healthy behaviors. Getting on board with everything at once is daunting, but committing to any of them is a giant step in the right direction. You may not make it to age 100, but this study suggests that with an optimal lifestyle, 93 for women and 87 for men are reasonable expectations.