Very Old and Very Healthy: The Characteristics and Habits that Seem to Drive Longevity
People are living quite a bit longer than they used to, and both scientists and laypeople have taken an interest in identifying the key factors driving this trend. Above and beyond improvements in medical treatment, it is widely believed that certain life habits, personal characteristics and genetic traits may combine to increase one’s chances of living a long and healthy life.
As we encourage our aging clients to take an active role in maintaining their health and functionality, it may be helpful to equip them (and ourselves) with specific ideas and actions that just might pave the way to a longer – and, importantly, healthier – final chapter.
Drawing on the research and collected insights of several resources, here is a partial list of ingredients that could conspire to create a 100+ year life:
Move naturally – modern life does not encourage much movement, but finding ways to incorporate natural exercise (gardening, walking, etc.) into one’s day is believed to contribute to health and longevity, perhaps even more so than vigorous workouts at the gym.
Discover your purpose – we’ve been hearing a lot about this facet of life in recent years. Being able to articulate one’s reason for getting up each day reinforces an overarching purpose in life and instills greater satisfaction. Blue Zones author Dan Buettner writes that having a sense of purpose can add seven years to one’s life.
Engage in de-stressing activities – some of the world’s most long-lived individuals have habits that allow them to disconnect from day-to-day stresses, such as prayer, napping, and even enjoying “happy hour”.
Know when to stop eating – the concept here is to stop eating when you are 80% full. This practice helps keep body weight in a steady position which, in turn, helps keep blood pressure, cholesterol and other key measures in check.
Eat plants – beans, especially, are a staple in many centenarian diets. Emphasizing plants and eating meat only sparingly seem to be hallmarks of longer lives.
Drink alcohol moderately – wine, in particular, taken with food and friends is a key ingredient in the long-life recipe. Moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers. Experts caution, however, that taking all of one’s drinks for the week on Saturday night is not an acceptable alternative – the key is to drink a little, with regularity.
Belong – though Blue Zones specifically states that belonging to a faith community and attending services four times monthly extends life, it’s hard to determine if it’s the sense of belonging, the faith itself, the social opportunities or a combination thereof that contributes to longevity.
Emphasize friends and family – keep them close, geographically and emotionally, and encourage an environment where the generations help one another. Maintain good social connections.
Spend time with healthy friends – keeping company with a core group of friends who also have healthy habits is common among super agers. Smoking, obesity and happiness are “contagious” so being around those who support one’s better choices increases the odds of a long life.
Learn resilience – some people are naturally resilient, and others learn to bounce back from negative events. Accepting whatever “new normal” might emerge as our bodies change with age and focusing on what we can do versus what we can’t, helps to build a healthy outlook and combat depression.
Exercise reasonable caution – avoid senseless risk and follow the “rules” that seem to help keep us safe, such as wearing a seat belt, washing your hands, keeping medical appointments, etc.
Be conscientious – living with a sense of duty, being thorough, and upholding one’s responsibilities are traits commonly found among super agers.
Drink coffee – coffee consumption, once considered a habit to be rid of, is now recommended. Coffee is naturally rich with antioxidants.
Learn new skills – the brain benefits from the challenge of learning new skills.
Undeniably, some families are blessed with protective genes that shepherd them through old age with few complications or setbacks. The rest of us must try a little, it seems, and may never know if it was our habits, our personalities and/or our genes that caused us to live a long time, in great health and with sharp minds.