Tales of immortality and eternal youth have been passed down between generations for thousands of years. From ancient Greek mythology to contemporary novels and movies, the dream of living forever has been documented long throughout history. While the Fountain of Youth may still only exist in myths and legends, the possibility of living longer has become a reality, thanks to advances in science, medicine, and public health. But unlike in the stories, the key to longevity isn’t a magical elixir — it’s healthy habits.
Some research estimates that genetics accounts for 25% of the variation of an individual’s lifespan, while environment and lifestyle factors may determine the rest. With similar healthy habits, such as not smoking and maintaining a good weight, those who have lived longest — into their nineties and hundreds — have been found less likely to develop age-related chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
While getting older is inevitable, adopting healthy lifestyle changes now can help you age well, and even add a few extra years to your life. Here’s are some ways you can live longer and healthier, backed by research:
1. Get moving
It’s no surprise that exercise is good for the body. But in addition to keeping you fit and strong, regular physical activity — even in small amounts — can also extend your lifespan. Exercise has been shown to reduce your risk of age-related disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers, while strengthening your bones and muscles, and boosting your overall life expectancy. Meanwhile, studies have linked sedentary lifestyles and lack of exercise with a greater risk of premature death. The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, but you’ll still enjoy the benefits of exercise in smaller amounts. One study found that just 15 minutes of physical activity a day can increase your lifespan by 3 years. Research has also shown that exercise can slow and reverse aging on a cellular level.
2. Stop smoking
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and has been linked to disease in nearly every organ of the body. On average, smokers die almost 10 years earlier than non-smokers and have three times the mortality rate. That being said, it’s never too late to quit. Quitting smoking can add as much as 10 years to your life, and reduce the risk of disease or death from heart attack, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and various other cancers. And the younger you quit, the better! Quitting before 40 has been found to reduce the risk of death from smoking-related disease by about 90%.
3. Drink in moderation
Excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers — all of which can lead to a shorter life span. According to one study, adults who drink 14 to 25 drinks per week could be shortening their life expectancy by one to two years, while those who drink more than 25 drinks may be shortening their lifespan by four to five years. If you do drink, moderation — one drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men — is key to minimizing these negative health consequences. Some research suggests that light to moderate drinking (wine especially) may even reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke. There is research suggesting that even moderate alcohol intake can be harmful though, so there is no reason to start drinking if you don’t already.
4. Reduce stress
While stress is an unavoidable part of life, elevated anxiety and worry can have a significant toll on the body and disrupt almost all of its processes. Research suggests that chronic stress can increase risk of depression, anxiety disorders, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation, and obesity, as well as shorten life expectancy. According to one Finnish study, for instance, heavy stress reduced the lifespans of both men and women by over 2 years. Luckily, there are several ways to manage stress and protect your mental health, from journaling and yoga, to therapy and meditation.
5. Stay connected
Friendships and relationships are more than just emotionally fulfilling; they are beneficial for your physical health too! A clinical review of nearly 150 studies found that individuals with strong social networks, on average, have a 50% greater chance of survival than those with less social support. In fact, according to the study, the health risk of social isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is more significant than being obese or inactive. Having strong, meaningful relationships can increase feelings of happiness and overall satisfaction with life, as well as reduce stress and improve overall health. Even being supportive of others can be good for your health, so make sure to prioritize time for friends and loved ones.
6. Get enough sleep
A regular sleep schedule is also crucial to your body’s overall functioning. Numerous studies have shown that inadequate sleep is linked to serious health conditions including hypertension, inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity — all of which contribute to a shorter lifespan. On the other hand, too much sleep can also be bad for your health, as it has been associated with a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. To improve your longevity, try to go to bed at the same time each night, and aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
7. Follow a healthy diet
Many people tend to think about their diet in terms of their short-term health goals, such as weight loss or better digestion. But what you eat now can have a serious impact on your life in the long term, including its length. A healthy diet, rich in fruits, veggies, fiber, and whole foods, has been shown to be protective against inflammation and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and certain cancers, that cause the majority of early deaths. One study estimated that more than 400,000 deaths a year could be prevented with dietary improvement. And even slight changes in diet can do the trick; Improving diet by just 20% was found to reduce risk of premature death by 8 to 17%. While there is a lot of debate over which foods boost longevity, it’s best to focus on incorporating a variety of whole, unprocessed foods into most meals. In general, that means eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes and cutting back on refined sugars as much as possible. Some research also shows a connection between the Mediterranean diet — an approach focused on fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and legumes — and longevity, as well as lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
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