Run an internet search for “longest living people” and you’ll come across an impressive list of people who have reached 117, 118 and even 122 years of age. However, with global life expectancy at birth hovers around 72, many of us would probably be happy to get to 90 in good health.
Longevity Factors: Why Do People Live Longer?
Often, genetics and other factors beyond our control affect the time we have on this Earth, but healthy habits like a good diet, regular exercise and regular doctor visits can also go a long way, experts say. Although all the factors affecting longevity would be too numerous to list in one article (and include everything from one’s level of education to sleep quality you get), we focused on a few key longevity factors.
Genes Contributing to Human Lifespan
Human and animal research suggests that being born into a family whose members regularly reach their 90s and beyond can be a key factor in determining how long you live. “Genes are certainly very important, especially in achieving extreme longevity,” says Walter D. Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California.
Especially for this “extreme” longevity, where members of the same family reach 100 years, Longo says. If you weren’t born with the ideal set of genes, then you have to work harder to reach those longer years. However, Longo cautions that having these long-lasting genes alone is not an excuse to eat poorly or take other risks with your health. Studies report that genes take rough A factor of 20 to 30 percent to predict longevity.
Diet Driving Healthy Longevity
The prevalence of obesity and diseases like diabetes are really hurting our ability to experience healthy longevity, says Neil Charness, director of Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity. And our preferences for high-fat, high-sugar diets don’t help matters. If healthy longevity is the goal, Charness recommends sticking to a Mediterranean-style diet that’s light on meat, heavier on seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts.
Read more: 4 science-based diets to improve your health
Longo has done extensive research on diet and its relationship to longevity. Like Charnes, he generally recommends a mostly plant-based diet with seafood options two or three times a week, although he suggests there are other factors to consider, such as a person’s background. For example, a person from Japan is more likely to be lactose intolerant than someone whose family originates from Norway, he says. Also, fasting for a 12-hour period each day (for example, between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.) is also important, the researcher notes. While it’s ideal to eat healthy around the clock, Longo recently published a study with other researchers putting mice on a high-fat, high-calorie diet for 25 days of the month, with the other five days consisting of lower-calorie, healthier foods. That was enough, Longo says, to return the mice to a healthier lifestyle.
“Five days a month—at least in mice—was quite enough to eliminate those 25 days a month of bad food,” says Longo. A similar principle is applied in Longo’s book, The Longevity Diet, which urges readers to go on a “fasting-mimicking” diet four times a year for five days. During this period, readers are instructed to eat lower-calorie foods rich in vegetables and nuts.
Exercise as another key factor in longevity
Exercise, along with diet and genetics, is one of the main factors in longevity, experts say. Longo says that people who lived to 100 tended to lead very active lifestyles. They may not have been athletes, the researcher notes, but they lived their lives as farmers or shepherds—a lifestyle with lots of physical activity built into their routines.
Charnes points to research on the so-called “Blue Zones” which show where in the world people live the longest and exercise is a consistent factor there. “Here in the U.S., we’re pretty stuck,” says Charness. “Very few people get the recommended amount of exercise … maybe a quarter of the general population does, even less than the older population.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults should be getting 150 minutes of exercise per weekwhich includes a combination of aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening.
Medical advances and technologies for longer life
From vaccines to pacemakers, various medical interventions have gone a long way toward extending our lifespan by preventing disease. However, technology can also play a role in improving the quality and potentially the length of our lives.
For example, setting older people up with email and other ways to connect with people online can help combat feelings of isolation, which improves quality of life for an aging population. Charness also points to advances like self-driving cars that could extend the lives of seniors, ultimately reducing the types of accidents they’re more likely to be involved in, such as crashes caused by misjudging distances and missing stop signs and traffic lights, Charnes says.
A person supporting conscientious behavior
Personality also plays a role in life expectancy, experts say. For example, conscientious people—meaning people who tend to be more organized, responsible, and disciplined—tend to live longer, says Angelina Sutin, a professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University. Soutine, whose lab has done extensive research on the topic of personality and lifespan, says this particular trait works to a person’s advantage in many ways. First, because conscientious people tend to engage in healthier behaviors, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and seeing their doctors for preventive care.
“In fact, before mortality, conscientiousness is associated with a lower risk of developing a chronic disease,” Soutine says. Soutine adds that the trait is further associated with lower levels of stress and healthier social relationships, all of which contribute to both a higher quality of life, longer life and healthy longevity.