The Possibilities for a (Very) Long, Healthful Life are Growing
As more people live to 100 years or older, longevity studies are attempting to determine why certain people or groups of people live to this extraordinary age.
Diet, environment, gender, sleep patterns, economic status, and genetics have been suspected of being contributing factors. Other factors include activity levels, smoking and alcohol consumption, anxiety and stress, social connections, and other lifestyle activities.
According to studies by experts, there are determinants for living a long life. These findings in the aggregate, along with common sense, can lead us to actions that are more likely to contribute to our longevity.
But just when researchers think they have identified the best ways to become a centenarian, someone comes along to confound the data. Consider the second-longest-lived person in recorded history who died in 2022 at age 119: Japan’s Kane Tanaka loved chocolate and enjoyed a daily, sugary soda drink. Her very long life starts the debates all over again. What was Tanaka’s secret? Was her joyful but unhealthy sugar consumption zeroed out by other healthier dietary factors, genetics, or her positive attitude?
Lifestyle Choices Top the List
Around 440 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.” While some people argue that food is not truly medicine, the concept that certain foods may prevent the need for medicine is rational. Considerable research exists on what an ideal longevity diet looks like—e.g., which foods to eat, in what combinations, even at what times of day to eat.
In Circulation in 2018, a Harvard research team led by Frank B. Hu, PhD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, published their study on data from more than 120,000 Americans who had been profiled for more than thirty years. The researchers considered diet, health, gender, age, ethnicity, and more. This data yielded astounding results when integrated with a program that evaluated the nutritional status of people: The team concluded that women who follow a healthy lifestyle could add fourteen years to their expected lifespan while men could add twelve years.
What is this “healthy lifestyle”? The Harvard study defined a healthy diet to be full of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and fish while restricting red meat, sugar, animal fat, and salt. The caveat is that in order to achieve the extended lifespan, the healthy diet must be accompanied by moderate or intense physical activity at least thirty minutes per day. In addition, the individual must not smoke and consume alcohol only in moderation (two drinks a day for men and one for women). The final factor is weight, or Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters. A healthy person’s BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.9, based on the study’s recommendations.
Valter Longo, PhD, professor of gerontology and biological sciences and director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, touts a similar diet with an added factor: a five-day, periodic dietary intervention called the Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD). In randomized clinical trials, the FMD was shown to reduce the risk factors and markers associated with aging and diseases. Multiple studies in rodents and humans have suggested that a variety of fasting methods can reduce body fat, cut insulin levels, and provide other benefits. One program, the 5:2 diet, calls for people to eat normally for five days a week, and then on the two other days, restrict themselves to 500 to 600 calories.
Blue Zones Provide Clues
“Blue Zones” is the trademark used to describe the world’s longest-lived cultures and the common characteristics that explain their longevity. It is the vision of Dan Buettner who, with Michel Poulain, PhD, identified four of the five blue zones hotspots and has led the research to identify the common denominators of their populations. Dr. Gianni Pes first used the term “blue zone” to describe an area of extraordinary longevity in Sardinia, Italy. The other four zones are Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, USA.
While these five locations may seem unrelated, the people who live in them follow similar lifestyles. They eat primarily plant-based meals with high quantities of beans, do not overeat, and drink one or two glasses of wine each day. They also engage in daily physical activities, take time to deal with stress, focus on their loved ones, have a sense of purpose, and spend time with other people.
Social Connections Linked to Longevity
Thousands of studies have found that healthy longevity depends on a depth and breadth of social connections. In Love and Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish showed that people who feel depressed, lonely, and isolated are three to ten times more likely to die prematurely from all causes. Ornish went on to develop a lifestyle medicine program based on a whole foods, plant-based menu; daily exercise; reducing stress; and using love and togetherness to transform loneliness into healing. In UnDo It!, Ornish used forty years of research to support the lifestyle theory’s effectiveness in reversing chronic disease and thereby increasing longevity.
Conversely, when people experience loneliness, they are at increased risk for several poor health outcomes. Feeling alone can be caused by isolation or be due to the subjective feeling of isolation. According to research highlights from the U.S. National Institute on Aging in 2019, a variety of research studies have linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for physical and mental conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Another benefit of building strong social networks with positive, supportive people is that it can increase optimism, which was shown in a 2019 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to lead to a longer life span. The study suggested that while optimism appears to be tied to genes, it is also possible to learn how to be more optimistic to increase the quality and quantity of life.
The Growing Centenarian Demographic
More people than ever before are 100 years or older. According to World Atlas, in 2021, the U.S. had the highest absolute number of centenarians worldwide, with 97,000 living in the country. Japan was in second place, with 79,000 people 100 years or older. Japan is the country with the highest rate of centenarians, at six for every 10,000 people or approximately 0.06 percent. Uruguay, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico are also home to some of the highest levels of centenarians.
For those who want to join the growing centenarian club—or go for supercentenarian status of 110 years or older—it is never too late to start working on a healthier lifestyle. Some helpful changes are to eat more plants but fewer calories overall, stay physically active every day, keep stress under control, find things to do to start the day, and do activities with friends. Cultivating a better quality of life can not only make every day more pleasing but even increase the number of those days.
*Julie Peterson writes on health and environmental issues from the Midwestern United States.