Longevity: What lifestyle habits could help you live to 100?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |

The question of how to live a long, healthy life is increasingly at the forefront of medical research. While centuries ago some may have turned to finding mythical immortality-granting items like the Holy Grail, scientists now say that achieving longevity may rely on eating the right foods, adopting healthy habits, and remaining socially active.

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Our experts share tips on how to live a long and healthy life. Image credit: imamember/Getty Images.

Reaching your hundredth birthday means you become a member of a “special club” of centenarians. While researchers believe the number of centenarians was very low before 1900, today many more people are able to reach this ripe old age.

As of 2021, there were an estimated 573,000 centenarians globally. The United Nations expects that number to jump rapidly, with a reported estimate of 3.7 million by 2050.

What do centenarians do to help them reach triple-digit birthdays — what is their secret? Medical News Today spoke with six experts to find out what the “secret sauce” behind longevity is.

In 2016, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner and his team published a study on what they found to be the secrets to longevity.

Dubbed the Blue Zones, Buettner identified five specific areas of the world where people consistently live over 100 years of age. These areas are:

  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Okinawa, Japan.

“These are places where human beings have lived manifestly longest,” Buettner explained to Medical News Today. “They’ve achieved the health outcomes we want: long lives largely free of chronic disease. Since only 80% of how long we live is dictated by disease, these people’s lifestyles and environments offer us instructions and clues for how we can set up our lives to live longer.”

Within these five areas, Buettner discovered there were nine common practices that people followed that might explain their slower aging process. Called the Power 9, they include:

  • move naturally
  • have a purpose in life
  • reduce stress
  • practice the 80% diet rule, which is to stop eating when 80% full
  • favor a plant-based diet
  • drink alcohol in moderate amounts
  • belong to a community
  • put family first
  • keep a social circle that supports healthy behaviors.

Loneliness, said Buettner, is a top risk factor for a shorter life, so preventing that as much as we can could help add years to our lives:

“We know that lonely people are expected to live 8 fewer years than well-connected people and that health behaviors [are] measurably contagious. People in Blue Zones are in socially connected villages with strong social ties, which gives them a longevity edge from the very beginning.”

“There’s no short-term fix [or] supplement for longevity,” he added. “Learn plant-based dishes that you like and cook at home. Curate a social circle of three to five healthy friends [who] will care about you on a bad day. Health behaviors are contagious, and friends tend to be long-term adventures.”

As diet makes up a few of the Power 9 learned from Blue Zones, Buettner has also launched the Blue Zone Food Guidelines that feature 11 recommendations reflecting how the world’s longest-living people ate for most of their lives.

“If you want to know what a centenarian [did to live] to be 100, you have to know what they ate during their whole [life],” he said. “Working with Harvard for my book The Blue Zones Kitchen, we collected 155 dietary studies done in all Blue Zones over the past 80 years and averaged them.”

“It was clear that over 90% of their traditional dietary intake came from whole food, plant-based sources [and] was about 65% complex carbs,” noted Buettner. “The pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grains, nuts, greens, and other garden vegetables, tubers, and beans.”

Dr. Valter Longo, Edna M. Jones Chair in Gerontology and professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, developed the Longevity Diet after years of research into aging, nutrition, and disease.

“The Longevity Diet, based on [the] five pillars of longevity, entails all of the everyday and periodic dietary habits that are associated with increased longevity and healthspan,” he explained to MNT.

The main facets of the Longevity Diet include:

  • eating a low-protein pescatarian diet until the age of 65–70 years, followed by moderate proteins later in life
  • fasting for 12 hours every night
  • doing, on average, three cycles of a fasting-mimicking diet per year, each lasting 5 days.

“Because diet [is] intended as ‘how and what we eat’ and not as a method to lose weight, [it] can regulate the genes that regulate the aging process, but also those that regulate the removal of damaged components of cells and the regeneration of parts of various tissues and organs,” Dr. Longo added.

Additionally, previous research suggests that the Mediterranean diet can also provide benefits when it comes to longevity.

A review published in January 2020 concluded that the Mediterranean diet helps slow down the progression of aging and the onset of frailty in older age.

And research published in March 2021 says adhering to the Mediterranean diet may add years to a person’s life.

Why is diet so important for longevity?

According to Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Nutrition-In-Sight in Johnson City, TN, and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when it comes to eating for longevity, diets like the Blue Zone Diet, Longevity Diet, and Mediterranean diet stand out because of the lifestyle components they share.

“Examples of commonalities observed within these populations include more families and individuals growing and consuming their food [and] eating more whole foods, as in closest to what Mother Nature has made versus derived from a manufacturing plant, industrial farm, or fast food chain,” she explained to MNT.

“Overall intake and composition of these diets include less highly-processed foods, therefore often automatically decreasing levels of sodium, artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives, fats or added sugar.” Richard noted.

“These dietary patterns often include foods lower in saturated fats, cholesterol, and calories, including more foods that are richer in nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants like vitamin C, E, A, [and] B, and higher in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iodine.”

– Monique Richard

The “power of positive thinking” is known to be beneficial to a person’s overall mental health. However, previous research shows that a positive attitude may even help a person live longer.

A study published in August 2019 found that being optimistic was associated with a person living 11-15% longer and having a stronger likelihood of living to age 85 or older.

Research published in October 2022 suggested that positive-thinking women in an ethnically diverse United States population lived an average of Health">4.4 years more than those who did not think positively.

“Having a positive, optimistic outlook reduces our risk for developing chronic diseases and gives us a greater chance of living past 85,” Dr. Karen D. Sullivan, a board-certified neuropsychologist and owner of I CARE FOR YOUR BRAIN in Pinehurst, NC explained to MNT.

“The mechanism behind these benefits is thought to be related to the protection optimism offers against the inflammatory damage of stress. Studies on negative emotions show a weakening effect on the immune system.”

– Dr. Karen D. Sullivan

Additionally, Dr. Karen Miller, a neuropsychologist, geropsychologist, and senior director of the Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA, noted that inflammation caused by stress is one of the culprits leading to more rapid aging, more physical difficulties, and more cognitive difficulties.

“So when we’re thinking positive and engaging in positive behaviors, such as […] meditation, yoga, participating in our own personal religious practices, getting out and walking, exercising, [or] enjoying the fresh air, all those things are bringing down our stress and bringing down our level of inflammation,” she continued.

“If we’re under a lot of stress we’re going to have higher inflammation and higher inflammation actually can cause cellular damage to our bodies, particularly our brains,” Dr. Miller noted.

In addition to staying positive and participating in activities that help lower stress, remaining socially active and connected to other humans has also been associated with living a long life.

A study published in September 2019 found women who had strong social relationships had a 10% longer life span and 41% better chance of living to age 85.

And research published in May 2023 showed that frequent participation in social activity was significantly associated with Health">prolonged overall survival in older adults.

“We are social beings with a social brain — we are wired to be part of a group with needs for both contributing value and being valued,” Dr. Sullivan explained.

“People who Health">identify as lonely have a […] greater risk of dying early than those who feel satisfied with their social life. The chronic stress of loneliness weakens our immune systems, making us more susceptible to Health " rationale="Governmental authority">infectious diseases and Health">chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

– Dr. Karen D. Sullivan

When actively socializing, Dr. Miller said, we are engaging in cognitive stimulation that helps keep the brain engaged and healthy.

“When we are involved with another person, there is that volley, that give and take,” she told MNT. “It’s like a tennis match — the ideas are going back and forth. And that type of cognitive stimulation actually inspires our brains to be more mentally agile, or like what we like to think of in neuropsychology as cognitive flexibility.”

Plus, conversing and engaging with others helps you learn more information, think creatively, and stimulate problem-solving skills, resulting in what Dr. Miller referred to as a “whole-brain workout.”

“That type of engagement, that social stimulation, is what I would call nature’s brain bootcamp,” she added. “We’re literally engaging in bootcamp for our brain where we’re socializing, which is very different than if I was isolated and I didn’t have that opportunity.”

While experts agree a healthy diet, limiting stress, thinking positively, and staying socially active can potentially lead to a longer life, there are some other healthy habits that are also important.

For example, smoking can take years off your life. A study published in June 2020 found that not smoking and being socially engaged throughout older age were common in centenarians free from common chronic diseases.

Keeping a healthy weight is also important for longevity. Research published in 2017 concluded that a high body mass index (BMI) was associated with substantially shorter healthy and chronic disease-free life expectancy.

Regular exercise can also help you live longer. A study published in August 2022 found that light or moderate to vigorous physical activity were both associated with a lower risk of mortality in older women, while higher sedentary time increased their mortality risk.

“Several studies have shown that physical activity is associated with lower risk of mortality in older adults,” Dr. Aladdin Shadyab, associate professor of epidemiology at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health & Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego, and senior author of the study told MNT.

“We were the first to show that higher levels of physical activity and lower time spent sedentary are associated with reduced risk of mortality, irrespective of having genes that predispose to a long life. These findings overall highlight the importance of maintaining a physically active lifestyle in old age to achieve longevity,” said Dr. Shadyab.

“I think maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise is most important, particularly for older adults,” he added. “Even light activities, such as walking, are important for maintaining a long and healthy life in the aging population.”

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