We all know that to some extent how long we live is in the hands of fate—or our genes. But there are also a recognized number of attitudes and behaviors that promote health, and that will give us our best chance to achieve as long a life as possible.
The issue of longevity is frought with vague studies and controversies about how much difference any of it makes. But some issues, such as smoking, are well-documented. Here are six strategies that experts agree can have a major impact not only on how long we're likely to live, but on how well we will live:
1. Eat a diet low in saturated fats. In general, people who live the longest eat a diet low in saturated fats that come from meats and diary. They consume almost no refined sugar. Instead, they drink water, or low-fat milk, and consume lots of unprocessed fruits and green vegetables. People who eat from their own gardens (as opposed to produce from the grocery store) reap more nutrients from their food and ingest fewer pesticides. Many long-lived people drink wine, but in moderation. They drink tea. And they consume coffee, again in moderation. The Mayo Clinic points out that high consumption of coffee can lead to high cholesterol levels, but for "most people the health benefits outweigh the risks," because coffee is associated with lower rates of diabetes, cancer, and Parkinson's.
2. Get plenty of sleep. Various studies have suggested that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure, and also bolsters your immune system, making your body better able to fight off infection. One study showed that people who get less than six hours of sleep a night have an increased risk for stroke, while another focused on women, concluding the female subjects had a 47 percent higher risk of cancer if they slept less than seven hours a night. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions, especially when making food choices, which can lead to weight gain.
3. Get some exercise. Many studies link a lack of exercise to weight gain and a shorter life span. But the point is, you don't have to join a gym and sweat bullets five days a week. Longevity expert Dan Buettner studied old people on the Greek island of Ikaria, where men are four times more likely than Americans to live into their 90s. These people do not go to the gym, and they do not run marathons. But they do get a fair amount of exercise because they walk almost everywhere they go, and don't worry too much about whether they're going to be late or not. Buettner also notes that three-quarters of the senior citizens on Ikaria have sex on a regular basis.
4. Maintain an active social life. One study showed that people who enjoy a close family life and/or plenty of friends live longer than people who are lonely. According to the study, led by a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, the protective effect of having fulfilling relationships is comparable to that of quitting smoking or losing a significant amount of weight. Nobody knows exactly how the health mechanism works. But some have suggested that being engaged in a community not only gives people a sense of connection and security, but may promote healthy behavior such as exercising, eating well, and avoiding self-destructive habits like taking drugs or drinking too much.
5. Keep working—but not too hard. Mortality tables show that death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. The mortality trends for women are similar, though less pronounced. While some of the disparity is because healthy people are more likely to keep working, researchers have concluded that staying engaged in life is what prolongs life. That doesn't mean you have to keep a job that causes high stress levels. Take your cue from the Ikarians. They get up late and take a relaxed approach to work. But they're not lazy. Many hold more than one job, and the concept of "retirement" with a 401(k) plan is completely foreign to them. They take pride in being self-sufficient. No one is rich, but everyone has enough food and a roof over their heads.
6. Make it a group effort. Most experts agree, it's more difficult to live a healthy lifestyle if you try to do it alone, or try to accomplish it amidst an unhelpful atmosphere. It's easy to stay on a healthy diet if your family gets together every evening for a well-balanced meal. It's hard if you live alone, down the street from a fast-food joint. It is possible to motivate yourself to brave the walking trail on cold winter mornings. But it's much easier if you have a friend to go with you, play a sport with a group of people, or go out to cut the rug at a social dance.
The lesson to draw is this: Finding reasons to get up in the morning is just as important in retirement as any financial planning. And if your reasons involve some physical exercise in the company of family or friends, all the better.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.