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  • Writer's pictureDr. Watts

Many Happy Returns - Secrets to Longevity

Updated: Apr 14

Longevity -- the science, or is it the art?, of living a long and healthy life.

The National Institute on Aging, a branch of the National Institute of Health, leads the research on biological aging. Its mission is to discover the secrets of longevity and the path to healthy and active aging.  As I was browsing through some of their studies I saw that no stone is left unturned at NIA when it comes to understanding aging.  Here is one: “Study of Naked Mole Rats Challenges Long-Held Theory of Aging” -- “longevity is associated with the ability of proteins to maintain structural stability and integrity.”  In other words, we live longer and healthier lives if we take care of our body proteins so they don’t fall apart. Stress, toxins, lifestyle choices, and synthesis errors all can cause proteins to fall apart.  Things we do can protect or damage our proteins. I guess that makes sense.

A few years ago, when news arrived every morning at my door in a paper format, I saved a newspaper article about strategies to add years to one’s life.  Every strategy or activity had a specific number of years-gained tacked on, anywhere from 1 year to 14 years per activity. It was interesting because I had never seen such statistics; perhaps it was a tongue-in-cheek ploy to pique the reader’s interest..  There is, in fact, science behind these numbers that supports such conclusions, but only in general terms, not in specific months or years gained. It is a well established fact, for example, that a plant-based diet rich in anti-oxidants and fiber and complex nutrients promotes cellular health, which “maintains the structural stability of proteins” (thank you, naked mole rats for your help in gaining this knowledge), but no study that I have read specifies an exact time-span gained. We just know that such a diet is health-promoting.

After reading the article again, I wondered how many years that would amount to, so I added up all the corresponding years gained according to the article and I came up with 99.6 years gained. Potentially a life-span of close to 200 years, which is positively Biblical! Whether the article was tongue-in-cheek or for real, research supports the advice, and  I thought it would be fun to check out some of those suggestions and see if we can all add some years to our life span.   

Clean up your space.  +1 year

The research is ample showing that clutter creates an environment of chronic stress that leads to anxiety, depression, feelings of being overwhelmed, and a general sense of dissatisfaction.  Clutter leads to wasted time as you search for that item you need that you know you have but cannot find.  Clutter is expensive, not only because you have to go buy that item you need because you cannot find it, but also because you spend money on impulsive purchases that you likely do not need.  Clutter causes stress because your space feels chaotic and overwhelming.  Clutter affects relationships because invariably blame starts flying around; who left stuff out, who did not put an important item back where it belongs,  where is this or that item, etc.  Keeping clutter tamed is a never ending battle, I understand and I am not passing judgment. I have struggled with my own demons in that regard.  But, in recent times, I made the firm decision that I don’t bring anything in the house unless it replaces a broken item or I have a specific use for it. I aspire to be a minimalist.  It is a journey fraught with difficulty and many false starts, but I am determined to get there...some day.

I have also learned (still learning, actually) to put things where they belong.  OHIO is a good acronym for that - Only Handle It Once.  I say that to myself many times a day.  Instead of setting something down "for now," just put it away. It is very hard to stick with that plan even though it takes only seconds --it just feels like such a chore -- but I am happy every time the screwdriver is where it is supposed to be.

Win a Nobel Prize.  +1.4 years

Ok, this might seem pointless since few of us will be on that podium, but we must put aside the whole Nobel prize thing and note that something very important happens on the way to winning.  The process of dedicating one’s life to pursuing a meaningful goal, having a sense of purpose, achieving a state of flow when one’s energy and attention is focused entirely on an objective, that is what leads to an increase in longevity.(click here if you want to read more about the benefits of flow) Yes, the prize and the $2 million dollar award are very nice, but at the end of the day the dedication to something that gives one a sense of purpose and engagement is what makes all the difference.  So, find the passion and purpose that makes your soul sing!

Look on the bright side.  +2 years

Optimism is a trait that contributes to health and to improved life satisfaction. Optimistic people generally have a positive outlook about events in their life, believe that they can overcome challenges, and have a flexible response when things don’t work out as they expected.  They generally expect favorable outcomes, so they are less likely to be anxious or fearful about the future. Optimists are low on measures of anger, frustration, and hostility.  As a result, they have lower levels of stress, improved cardiovascular health, decreased blood pressure, and stronger immune systems.  Although people don’t always have high levels of optimism, it is well worth cultivating it.  If you feel that you get trapped in loops of negative thinking, talking to a psychologist might be beneficial.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy is highly effective in helping people change their outlook and negative thinking.

Be social. +2.5 years

The research is very clear:  people who have close relationships with family and friends and who have regular social activities and engagements report more life satisfaction and longer lives.   Okinawa, an island in Japan, has the highest concentration of centenarians, people who live to 100 and beyond.  Not only do they live long lives, they are also healthy and active and they spend extensive time with family and friends  dining, talking, walking, playing games, all the things that make life pleasant.  A strong support network is  associated with decreased blood pressure, improved cognitive functioning, decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress.  It provides a powerful protective factor in responding to stress, illness, and trauma.

Take up distance running. +5.7 years

Long-distance running, or endurance running, is an activity that does amazing things for your health: it strengthens your heart muscle, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves cognitive functioning, strengthens skeletal muscles, improves balance releases brain chemicals, such as endorphins, that enhance good mood and improves sleep.  If it came in a pill form, everyone would be on it.  But, despair not!  Even if you are not an endurance runner, physical activity that moves your body achieves similar effects.

Floss your teeth. +6.4 years

It is a well established fact that not flossing leads to gingivitis, periodontal disease, and cavities.  That’s bad enough by itself, but to make matters worse, gum diseases harbor bacteria which can enter the blood system and cause systemic inflammation and heart disease. Dental bacteria can also cross the blood brain barrier and are associated with cognitive decline and dementias.  (click here for more information about the effects of good dental health.) So flossing is not optional; it is a life-saving “must” and look at how many years adds to your life!

Go to church.  + 8 years

Research over the years has consistently found that regular attendance of religious services is associated with decreased mortality from all kinds of illnesses, improved health and quality of life, and stronger social networks.  This applies across different religions.  Non-attendants, on the other hand experienced significantly more health problems and physiological disturbances of various kinds indicative of increased accumulation of stress effects in their bodies.  These findings are not surprising, given that all religions incorporate meditative rituals, such as prayer, chanting, singing, as well as periods of fellowship and connection.

Adopt four simple habits. +14 years

Don’t smoke

Limit your alcohol intake

Exercise daily

Eat 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables every day

I think these speak for themselves; no editorial commentary needed.

Control your stress. +Untold numbers of years

This one is my addition, it was not part of the article, but I think it adds its own net value that is incalculable. Stress is like a corrosive agent that breaks down tissue, damages brain pathways, alters the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, and damages the structural integrity of proteins that I mentioned at the beginning. (click here to read about good stress and bad stress)

So, just like that, we added 41 years to our lives!   There were other items that I did not include, such as having cool initials, which added 4.5 years.  W.I.N is preferable to B.U.M.  I guess that’s a note of caution for people who are in the baby naming stage of life - see how the initials work together.

Otherwise, there you have it -- simple, no fuss plan of action that not only leads to a longer life, but one that is also filled with meaningful activities and a sense of purpose, simple and clean surroundings, healthy food, physical activity, and loving relationships.   

Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


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