This Is How To Have A Long Awesome Life: 5 Secrets From Research
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Head out to the Inyo National Forest in California and you’ll see plenty of bristlecone pine trees. There’s one in particular worth noting. It’s aptly named “Methuselah.”
As of 2021, that tree is at least 4,853 years old.
Methuselah was there when woolly mammoths were still wandering around. It calls the Egyptian pyramids “youngsters.” And when the Institute of Forest Genetics tested Methuselah and its family, looking for signs of cellular aging — they didn’t find any. These trees do not age.
Is there something magical in that soil? Nope, quite the opposite. Bristlecone pines grow in pretty darn awful conditions. (Hint: remember that for later.)
For most of our existence, humans averaged 30-35 years of life. I’d already be long dead. But that’s an average, mostly due to childhood mortality rates upward of 30%. For most of our time on this planet there wasn’t much health care and, frankly, not much health. We started turning that around in a big way starting in the 19th century. Better hygiene, public health initiatives like sewers, vaccines, and improved nutrition literally saved billions of lives.
The maximum global life expectancy has increased by three months every year since 1840, with clockwork regularity. Even better, the trend shows no sign of abating… A 20-year-old today has better odds of having a living grandmother than a 20-year-old in the 1800s did of having a living mother.
Things are much better for us now, thanks to science. (Things are better for me now than they were an hour ago, thanks to coffee and ibuprofen.) Life expectancy is over 60 for 99% of countries on the planet and if things keep progressing as they have, half of kids born in the United States today will live to be 104.
But we’ve increased longevity without ever treating aging directly. We’ve reduced mortality but not morbidity. It’s Whac-A-Mole medicine; addressing the symptoms — but not the underlying problem — of aging. And many scientists now believe aging is the real disease. Cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s – they’re all just symptoms.
Smoking quintuples your chance of getting cancer. Meanwhile, being 50 increases your chance of cancer by a factor of 100. At age 70, it’s a factor of 1000. Overall, your risk of dying of something doubles every eight years. If we really want to live long, better lives, we need to stop addressing the symptoms of aging and treat aging directly.
Well, finding new readers for my blog is hard, so I’d prefer you live longer. Time to get some solid answers. I’ve performed my usual full cavity search on the science and drew from a smorgasbord of different sources. The primary one is “Lifespan” by Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair but we’ll also pull useful bits from Ageless, Extra Life, Successful Aging, Happiness Is A Choice You Make, Live Long Die Short, and Better With Age.
We’re not only going to see what it takes to increase your lifespan, but also your “healthspan” so we can live long and live well. I’m not saying you’re going to understand Snapchat by the time we’re done but there’s a lot we can do to feel young again.
Okay, Benjamin Button, let’s get to it…
Fountain of Youth 101
Aging is caused by DNA damage. You have literally trillions of breaks in your cellular DNA every day. That’s impossible to avoid. If your body didn’t divert energy to repair this damage you wouldn’t be around very long. Luckily, you have a DNA “repair circuit.”
Here’s the problem: your body always has to choose between reproduction and repair. The construction crew or the cleaning crew. Central here is “mTOR”, which is the master driver of cell growth. When mTOR is active it’s time to grow; when it’s turned off it’s time to repair. You don’t clean up when the party is raging; you clean up when the party is over.
Remember Methusaleh? The tree? Yup, it doesn’t live in the land of plenty. It sprouts up in the most awful terrain for trees. And that stress tells it to hunker down and focus on survival. Most everything that increases longevity works off this principle. When our bodies are stressed and resource deprived, when the party is over, it’s time to get conservative and switch on the repair circuit.
And this is why most things that increase longevity, frankly, aren’t a lot of fun. Yeesh.
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Well, if “ignorance is bliss” then perhaps “knowledge is awful.” I regret to inform you that the most powerful piece of longevity advice, well, you’re not going to like it…
Eat Less Often
Hey, don’t blame me! This is straight from Harvard’s David Sinclair:
After twenty-five years of researching aging and having read thousands of scientific papers, if there is one piece of advice I can offer, one surefire way to stay healthy longer, one thing you can do to maximize your lifespan right now, it’s this: eat less often.
Yes, I can hear you sobbing across the internet. I am well aware that pizza and tacos are what make life worth living but even if you ignore reality, reality won’t ignore you.
Calorie restriction (without malnutrition) extends life in almost every organism studied. There’s over 80 years of data to back this up. And it doesn’t just make us live longer, it also makes us live younger, increasing health markers across the board.
A study at Duke took 145 people and asked them to cut calories to 25% below what would normally be considered “healthy” for them for two years. Sound awful? It must have been because the study subjects didn’t do it. In fact, when the two years was up, they’d only cut calories by 12% on average. But guess what? It still had noticeable effects.
Even that was enough, however, for the scientists to see a significant improvement in health and a slowdown in biological aging based on changes in blood biomarkers.
So how can we get some of the benefits with less of the suffering? The research points to some variation on occasional fasting. Look at the “Blue Zones” – the areas of the world with the longest-lived people – and you see that fasting practices are often part of the culture.
“Intermittent fasting,” recently popularized as the “5:2 diet,” involves eating far less, or perhaps nothing at all, for a day in every few. The 5:2 diet, for example, suggests cutting back to 600 calories on two non-consecutive days in a week, and eating normally on the other five. “Alternate-day fasting” goes a little further and requires low or zero eating every other day. “Periodic fasting” means not eating for five-plus days in a row, anywhere from once a month to annually. Finally, “time-restricted feeding” confines eating to a window typically ranging from 6 to 12 hours a day.
Missing a meal is a habit most of us engage in every other decade or so, but simply skipping breakfast and not eating after dinner looks to be a good way to live a bit longer without undue suffering.
Then there’s the question of what to eat. It’s not a stretch to say that the typical Western diet could use an exorcism. Nutrition is a tricky subject and there’s probably no perfect diet for everyone, but we see a consistent pattern in those places that produce the most centenarians: more veggies and whole grains, less meat, dairy and sugar.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
You may be wondering: If I exercise a ton, can I still eat a lot and live longer? Err, probably not. Rats given high calories and high exercise saw minimal longevity benefits. Some level of hunger seems necessary to stress the mTOR system. Hunger plus exercise works great, however. Ugh.
So what’s the deal with exercise when it comes to longevity?
Again, David Sinclair is quite direct: “exercise turns on the genes to make us young again at a cellular level.” And the results are dramatic.
From The Comfort Crisis:
Research suggests that smoking takes 10 years off a person’s life, while the combined effects of being unfit may take as many as 23.
Good news is that it doesn’t take a lot to see big benefits.
One recent study found that those who ran four to five miles a week—for most people, that’s an amount of exercise that can be done in less than 15 minutes per day—reduce their chance of death from a heart attack by 40 percent and all-cause mortality by 45 percent.
And you don’t have to run. Multiple studies show regular long walks can really help.
Just improving diet and exercise can take you a quite a way toward the centenarian club.
One study looking at 100,000 health professionals in the U.S. gave them a score based on five healthy behaviors (not smoking, a healthy bodyweight, not drinking too much, regular exercise and eating well), and found that those who ticked four or five boxes at age 50 could expect to live ten years longer, both in total and in years spent in good health, than those who didn’t tick any.
(To learn how to be happier without really trying, click here.)
Okay, starving and exercising can be a tough pill to swallow. What’s an easier pill to swallow? Well, pills. Is there a pharmaceutical fountain of youth out there?
Longer Living Through Chemistry
It’s still early days when it comes to longevity pills. Rapamycin is the big drug that holds a lot of potential. It works like calorie restriction but without the restriction part – it tricks your body into thinking there are fewer nutrients available and flips the repair switch. Problem is it can negatively affect immune system function, so it’s still a work in progress.
And you’ve probably heard about Resveratrol. Yeah, that’s the one in wine. (Guess when grapes produce it best? Yup, when they’re under stress.) Problem is it’s not very potent. To get enough of it from drinking you’d have to consume a quantity that would make your liver explode. So, for now, like Rapamycin, it’s a bit of a dead end.
What does work? That’s Metformin. It’s cheap, safe, approved by the FDA and has shown some impressive benefits.
A study of more than 41,000 metformin users between the ages of 68 and 81 concluded that metformin reduced the likelihood of dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer, frailty, and depression, and not by a small amount.
The above does not constitute medical advice, yadda yadda. I’m flattered if you trust me but the above still falls under the category of “some guy on the internet said it works.” Do your homework, talk to your doctor, and please don’t blindly believe everything you read – even if I wrote it.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, enough physiology. Let’s turn to psychology. I’ve always felt the brain was the most interesting thing to study. (Wait… what part of my body told me that?)
Live Like You’re Young
Satchel Paige played professional baseball until he was 59. Paige once said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Kinda makes you wonder if Satchel was a bristlecone pine — but he had a point. And science agrees.
From Better with Age:
Research has shown that subjective age (how old you feel), not your actual age, is in fact a better predictor of your overall health, memory abilities, physical strength, and longevity.
In 1979, Ellen Langer took a bunch of men in their 70’s and 80’s and put them in a hotel that was dressed up to look like it was the 1950’s, the period when they were middle-aged. She told them to live like they were young again. What happened? It was like “The Selfie of Dorian Gray.”
From Better with Age:
…significant improvements in hearing, memory, strength, and scores on some intelligence tests. The group told to behave like they were 20 years younger also showed better dexterity and flexibility and even looked younger, according to outside observers who judged photos of the participants taken before and after the retreat.
So, to a degree, living like you’re younger can help keep you younger.
And an area that deserves special emphasis when it comes to dementia is feeling a sense of purpose in life. This one’s interesting because it had no effect on the biology of people’s brains. But research shows folks with a driving cause in life performed better despite the damage of the years gone by.
The stronger a sense of purpose people had, the stronger the effects on their brains as they aged. So don’t have hobbies – have passions. Something that propels you forward. As Norman Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
And, as the saying goes, “it’s not all about you.” There’s a big social component to sticking around on this planet past your due date…
In 1938, the Harvard Grant Study started following a group of men across their entire lives – and it’s still going. Robert Waldinger, who now leads the study, said this:
People who are more socially connected to family, to friends and community, are happier, healthier, and they live longer…
Relationships are vital – but not all of them. Laura Carstensen, founding director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, has noted that bad relationships are more harmful than good ones are positive. Translation: ditch the jerks.
And then replace them with new friends. Widows live longer than widowers and that’s largely attributed to women being better at maintaining their social networks.
The Grant Study has collected truckloads of data over the years but when George Vaillant, who previously led the research, was asked what he learned from following those men for decades, he said one thing: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, I don’t want to take up too much more time in your life. Let’s round it all up and learn a little tip you can put to work right now…
Here’s how to have a long, awesome life:
- The Repair Circuit: When you’re flush with cash, you spend. When times are tight, you conserve to extend financial longevity. Your body is no different. We need to stress our bodies a bit to activate that repair circuit.
- Eat Less Often: You don’t need to starve yourself. Limiting your food intake to 8 hours a day is probably the most comfortable way to get notable results.
- Exercise: The Grim Reaper is slow. You can literally walk away from him.
- Medication: If you’re up for experimentation, Metformin shows a lot of promise. (Talk to your doctor. I got my MD from the University of Nowhere.)
- Live Like You’re Young: But be less surly in your second adolescence, okay?
- Social: Ditch the jerks and spend more time with those you love.
Once you’re no longer covered under your parents’ health insurance, that means your manufacturer’s warranty is over. We only get about 3 billion heartbeats, that’s it. But that’s no reason why we should have a negative attitude toward aging. In fact, that’s a really bad idea.
From Better with Age:
Research shows that the attitudes one holds about aging are related to how well one actually ages—even when these attitudes are assessed years before one enters old age.
Aging isn’t all bad. In fact, you can benefit from thinking like an older person right now. Perspective is powerful and, as John Leland notes, the elderly often have a pretty good one. They find happiness in the present – because the future may not come. Life’s better when you stop waiting for the future to make you happy. When your mood isn’t dependent on external circumstances. When you find happiness and fulfillment in the imperfect now.
We’d be better off with a touch of that perspective today, before it’s forced upon us. Sometimes it takes 80 years to learn how valuable the simple things are, like a sunset or a smile. To realize the fancy stuff you thought you wanted is not what really makes you happy.
A little optimism doesn’t hurt either. Thomas Perls, who leads The New England Centenarian Study, says this is a solid part of living long and living well. To know you’ve dealt with everything that has come before, and will deal with whatever happens next. To let yourself worry a little less.
These perspective shifts — living in the now and a little optimism — can be the difference between living long and dying long. The research says they’ll make you happier. And, in a virtuous cycle of sorts, being happier extends your lifespan by approximately 4-10 years.
Overall, the longevity research is imperfect. They’re still working on it. We might take this perspective and live optimistic lives, happier and more grateful, surrounded by those we love and appreciating all the good around us – and yet not live to 100…
I don’t know about you, but that still sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
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