10 Choices That Can Help You Live Longer
An expert's advice on ways to take advantage of 'the longevity revolution'
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from "The Science and Technology of Growing Young" by Sergey Young.
If you are under 60 and in reasonably good health, I believe you will witness some groundbreaking health care advances within your lifetime. And, I believe, you will be able to grow young with the aid of these astonishing new technologies.
Quit your bad habits. I'm talking about cigarettes, alcohol and sugar.
Living to at least 100 is within reach for most people on the planet today. In the United States, 50% currently make it past 83 and 25% past 90. Going forward, these numbers will only improve for anyone who follows what I call a longevity-optimized lifestyle.
My advice: do everything possible to improve your chances of being around to take advantage of the successive waves of scientific improvement. How? Follow my 10 longevity choices that can help you extend your lifespan:
1. Get your health checked. Early diagnosis is critical for the prevention of disease and age-related decline. So, get yourself checked regularly and as comprehensively as possible.
At a minimum, get a complete annual physical exam that includes blood count and metabolic blood chemistry panels, a thyroid panel and testing to reveal potential deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B, iron and magnesium.
One in nine men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime, almost all of them after 50. If caught early, the prostate cancer survival rate is almost 100%. But that figure drops to 31% if it's first caught in stage 4. The case for colonoscopies is much the same. Women over 40 should get an annual breast exam, mammogram, ultrasound and an occasional pap smear to check for breast, ovarian and cervical cancer.
Ask your doctor which tests are relevant for you — your physician may recommend additional tests based on your family history.
Direct-to-consumer diagnostic tests, like ones from 23andMe, Nebula Genomics and Thryve, also offer convenient, low-cost ways to study your genes, epigenome (chemical compounds that modify the genome) and gut flora (microorganisms in the digestive tract). Identifying genetic mutations that cause hereditary diseases lets you take proactive action to prevent disease and promote a healthier lifestyle.
Don't ignore DIY diagnostic tools. Smart watches can tell you a lot about your cardiovascular health, mole-checking apps can help protect you from skin cancer, sleep-tracking wearables can help monitor your slumber. And don't overlook the good old-fashioned bathroom scale — obesity is one of the biggest independent predictors of disease.
2. Quit your bad habits. I'm talking about cigarettes, alcohol and sugar.
Cigarette smoking is easily the biggest "no-no" for longevity seekers. It causes 90% of lung cancer deaths and 80% of all other pulmonary diseases; increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke two to four times and raises your risk of getting cancer at least 25 times. Statistically, cigarette smoking shaves 10 years off your life. I kicked the habit on August 15, 1994, after four years of heavy inhalation.
While drinking red wine in moderation probably has positive effects on cardiovascular health, brain health and metabolism, all alcohol — including red wine — can shorten your life.
High and regular use of alcohol can damage your liver and pancreas, cause high blood pressure, increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, bring on immune system disorders and lead to early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Perhaps the most frightening ill effect of alcohol is its ability to cause cancer.
Heavy drinking is likely to cause health problems that knock a few years off your lifespan. Excess drinking also ultimately reduces blood sugar, as your pancreas fights to restore balance and that tends to make you hungry and overeat.
Stick with a glass or two of wine over a weekend at most. The potential damage of heavy drinking is just not worth overdoing it.
Of all our bad habits, sugar is probably the most under-recognized killer of all. The American diet is loaded with sugar — in cereals, baked goods, soft drinks, fast food, frozen vegetables, canned fruit, yogurt, salad dressing and pretty much every processed food you can imagine.
Over time, excess sugar wears out the pancreas, which stops producing insulin, or else cells "shut down" and stop accepting glucose. When you consume more sugar than your body needs, it gets converted into fat. Together, these result in a cluster of health conditions known as insulin resistance syndrome or metabolic syndrome, increasing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Obesity reduces life expectancy by five to 20 years.
In the right doses, sugars from fruits, vegetables and even grains play an important role in a healthy diet. I eat fruits, and treat myself to an ice cream once per month. But make no mistake about it — excess sugar is poison. To lessen your intake, avoid all processed foods and sugary drinks.
3. Don't do dumb things. Unintentional poisoning is the leading cause of accidental death in the world and there are hundreds of thousands of accidental poisonings from pain medications, sedatives, antidepressants, cardiovascular drugs and household cleaning substances.
Follow medication warning labels, be careful with vapors from cleaning fluids, perfumes and other liquids and securely store pesticides, paint, batteries and other household hazards.
Following close on the heels of poisoning are road accidents, which claim about 40,000 lives in the United States every year. The root causes of many of these accidents: speeding, reckless driving, drunk driving, inclement weather and distraction. If you are still texting, talking on the phone, eating, reading or fiddling excessively with your dashboard dials while operating a motor vehicle, I beg you — stop!
4. Eat early, and less often. Eating less food will extend your life by as much as seven years. Caloric restriction predictably reduces common health problems like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and cognitive decline as well as the likelihood of obesity and insulin resistance.
As counterintuitive as it initially seems, slightly starving yourself improves and strengthens your health. For those just setting out in the world of calorie restriction, I suggest starting with a 16:8-hour intermittent fasting regimen. This is where you eat all your meals within one eight-hour period — for instance, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. or between 10 and 6.
Intermittent fasting improves weight loss, insulin stability, cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as energy and mental alertness, and it can also add years to your life.
As you become more comfortable with time-restricted eating, you can consider bumping up to an 18:6 model, where you eat all your calories between noon and 6, for instance.
Clinical data show that intermittent fasting improves weight loss, insulin stability, cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as energy and mental alertness, and it can also add years to your life.
I also recommend eating more of your calories early in the day, which aids weight loss, reduces blood sugar, insulin and triglycerides and causes you to burn twice the calories of those who eat large dinners.
5. Let food be thy medicine. Poor diet is the number-one driver of noncommunicable disease worldwide, killing at least 11 million people every year. High salt intake encourages stroke and heart disease. Cancer is linked to processed foods and red meat. Excess calorie intake drives obesity and diabetes. And I've already talked about the dangers of sugar.
So what should you eat?
To reduce your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, every meal should include at least one plant-based dish. I always have broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus or zucchini as a side for lunch and dinner. Carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes support a healthy microbiome and help avoid obesity. When I snack, I opt for berries, nuts or fresh veggies.
A good rule of thumb: "eat the rainbow." That means including vegetables of every color in your diet, as each provides different phytonutrients essential for health.
Other tips: avoid processed foods; go organic; include healthy fats from olive oil, fatty fish, nuts and avocados; limit consumption of dairy and red meat and drink more water.
6. Supplement your nutrition. Many supplements claim to offer specific longevity benefits. The problem is that the supplements industry is woefully underregulated. Some supplements also interfere with prescription drugs; others contain poor-quality, unlisted and potentially deadly ingredients. Nonetheless, I am a big believer in supplements, and take dozens of them every day.
My advice is to do your research thoroughly, choose the highest-quality supplements you can afford and consult with your physician. As for things like metformin, resveratrol, NMN (a derivative of niacin), and NR (a form of vitamin B3), I urge you to stick with a well-balanced diet and wait on these supplements for a few years until these things are proven.
At Sergeyyoung.com, you can download an infographic with guidance on what various supplements do and which are most important. Use it as a starting point for your conversation with a doctor.
7. Get on up! Exercise remediates most of the "killer monster" diseases and reduces your risk of early death by 30% to 35%. Just 15 to 25 minutes of moderate exercise per day adds three years to your life if you are obese and seven if you are in good shape.
In addition to improving cardiovascular and pulmonary health, those who exercise regularly have a 12% to 23% lower risk of bladder, breast, colon and stomach cancers. Sports and physical training strengthen muscles and bones, improve heart health, reduce inflammation, nourish cognitive abilities, moderate hormones and supply many more benefits. You have no doubt heard of the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which fires up your metabolism more effectively than steady-state cardio exercise.
I say, it doesn't really matter what exercise you do. Anything that gets you up out of the chair, moving and breathing more intensely on a regular basis is going to help.
That is why the method of exercise I practice and recommend the most is extremely simple — walking. Brisk walking improves cardiovascular health, reduces obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure and also eases the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
I wear a Fitbit daily and walk energetically enough to raise my heart rate to about 100–110 beats per minute.
A few ways to get more steps into your life: If you live or work on a reasonably low floor of a high-rise, take the stairs. When you drop by the store, park as far away from the entrance as possible. Get a dog. Take a short stroll after dinner. Get a standing desk so you are still shifting weight and moving your feet throughout the day. It all adds up.
8. Make sleep your superpower. Getting even one hour less sleep on a single day can increase your chance of heart attack by 24%! More than 15,000 studies link sleeping less than seven hours per night with coronary heart disease, stroke, asthma, atherosclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis, depression, high blood sugar, diabetes and kidney disease, even after adjusting for other factors like smoking and obesity.
At least 20 studies of millions of sleepers have clearly proven that less sleep leads to shorter life.To ensure that you have at least seven hours of proper sleep, spend at least eight hours in bed per night.
To ensure you get enough restful sleep, try using a sleep-tracking app or device and sleep in absolute darkness and a cool room.
9. Remember: mindfulness over matter. You may know that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, enhance self-awareness, increase empathy, sharpen thinking and promote happiness.
Stress increases the level of fight-or-flight hormones in your body, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart rate, dilate pupils, suppress your pain response and immune system, increase blood pressure and pour glucose into your blood.
The bottom line — chronic stress makes you age faster.
When you are chronically stressed, these stress hormones damage your blood vessels, increase blood pressure, raise your risk of having a stroke or heart attack, disrupt libido and suppress your immunological defenses. They increase blood glucose levels and blood pressure, obesity, hypertension and other signs of metabolic syndrome.
Meanwhile, chronic stress reduces the production of klotho: an important protein that reduces inflammation, protects the heart against oxidative stress and controls insulin sensitivity.
The bottom line — chronic stress makes you age faster.
Meditation counteracts the age-accelerating effects of stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces blood pressure, slows breathing and heart rate and otherwise counteracts the fight-or-flight response.
New research has even revealed insights about the effect of meditation on telomeres — those protective caps at the end of your DNA strands. Between 2010 and 2018, multiple studies showed that meditating regularly for as little as three months results in significantly increased telomere length and reduced cellular aging.
To live longer and healthier — or simply to live better and happier — I cannot recommend meditation strongly enough. I practice meditation for just 12 to 15 minutes per day. If you'd like to get started with the practice but don't know how, consider trying one of many good apps, including Calm, Headspace or neuroscientist Sam Harris' guided meditation app, Waking Up.
10. Think and grow young. Although I am approaching 50, I think of myself much more like a thirtysomething. Clearly, how old you feel and how old you are biologically have some kind of relationship. Yes, it is actually possible to "think and grow young."
Finding purpose in life is a key to survival under any circumstances. The Japanese call this ikigai — "the reason to live." And having such a reason can actually make you live longer. One of the reasons it is believed that Okinawans live so long — on average, about 90 years for women and 84 for men — is that they know and practice their ikigai. In one study of more than 73,000 Japanese people, those who reported having found their ikigai increased their chances of outliving the study by 7% for women and 15% for men.
Research shows that just being grateful can bestow substantial longevity benefits, too. A 2019 study at the Boston University School of Medicine followed more than 70,000 individuals for 10 to 30 years, tracking their attitudes and health. The researchers concluded that "optimism is specifically related to an 11 to 15% longer life span, and to greater odds of achieving 'exceptional longevity.'"
Even after adjusting for lifestyle factors, according to one study, older adults who volunteer for two or more organizations enjoy a 44% smaller chance of dying early than those who do not. This is the idea behind my friend Dana Griffin's platform Eldera.ai, which connects vetted older adults with children for virtual story time, activities, conversations or help with homework.
There are, of course, more exotic things you can try to stay in the best possible shape to take advantage of new technologies. I occasionally partake in ice bath treatments, forever experimenting with ways to continue "Growing Young." The important thing is that you get on the road to living a longer, healthier life and stay there.
(Excerpted from "The Science and Technology of Growing Young" by Sergey Young, published by BenBella Books, August 2021.)