Think your genes have sealed your fate? Not so fast: While heredity holds some sway over how long you live, there is plenty you can do to improve your chances, says Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., co-author of “The Roadmap to 100: the Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life.” Here are 10 questions to ask your doctor about how to live longer.
1. Do I have any control over my longevity? Absolutely. Most of what people think of as aging is really inactivity. The important differentiation is that you can do something about disuse, but you can’t do anything about aging.
Aging is not a disease. You can’t cure it, so you need a whole different way of thinking about it. I don’t think doctors have much to do with it. They want to fix things. Aging is not something to be fixed. It’s an energy issue, not a fix-it issue.
2. What are the proven strategies for a longer life? Long-living populations certainly do not have high-tech medicine. The recent Blue Zones series by National Geographic found commonalities between populations with high numbers of people over 90: exercising, relaxing, having spirituality or a belief system, having a purpose in life, prioritizing family, belonging to a community, drinking red wine in moderation, eating plant-based foods and stopping eating when 80 percent full.
It’s much more of a lifestyle issue. A recent study by Harvard University doctors found that smoking, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure were all associated with men dying before the age of 90, while exercising regularly — enough to break a sweat — was linked to living to 90 or older. Diabetes and obesity are largely linked to eating habits. And those men were in better physical and emotional shape than the ones who lived fewer years.
3. How big a role does genetics play in my lifespan? A number of us have done studies with twins. If genes were the master determinant, twins would die on the same day of the same disease. Genetics determine about 15 percent of the difference in longevity between people. So genes matter a little bit but not very much. It ain’t the cards you’re dealt; it’s how you play the hand.
4. What eating habits are associated with long life? It’s the standard high plant food, low animal fat emphasis. Mediterranean diets that are high in fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil have been shown to be better for lifespan than, say, meat-heavy diets. The National Cancer Institute found that people who eat lots of red and processed meat have a higher risk of death, especially from heart disease and cancer, than those who eat little meat.
5. Are there drugs or supplements I can take to live longer? There’s no way you can go down to Walgreens and buy a “don’t get old” miracle pill. Nobody has yet shown that antioxidants and vitamins do any good at all.
6. How can exercise help me live longer? Exercising turns on the good genes and turns off the bad ones. Research at the University of South Carolina found that men could reduce their risk of dying by an estimated 37 percent and women by 50 percent over an eight-year period just by becoming physically active.
The President’s Council of Physical Fitness recommends at least two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or gardening. The most important step is the first step. Every successive step after that further helps.
7. Does too much stress shave years off my lifespan? Of course. The Greeks taught, “Everything in moderation.” When you’re stressed, you’re overexpressing your anxiety. Not only has research linked stress to worse immunity, but studies have found that people who experience prolonged stress die sooner than those who aren’t chronically anxious.
8. Will having sex help me live longer? Sex is good for longevity, too. A study in Wales showed that people who had good sex lived longer. Middle-aged men who had two or more orgasms a week were less than half as likely to die over the 10 years they were followed than other men. And a study at Duke University showed that more sex for men and better sex for women were associated with longer lives. Why would that be? It’s part of the quality of life.
9. What do relationships have to do with longevity? Obviously, people live longer if they’re in a social environment. A study that followed people 65 and up for 13 years found that those who volunteered, got together with friends and even ran errands saw just as much benefit to their lifespan as those who exercised. Other research has found that people who are socially isolated are less able to fight infection. When you stop being engaged, you withdraw from work, you withdraw from sex, you withdraw from reading magazines, and when you do that, your body goes into an inactive, boredom mode and you don’t do well.
10. Even if I manage to live a long time, am I doomed to lose my memory as I get older? There have been studies on supercentenarians, people over 110. Madame Jeanne Calment — the oldest living woman on record, who lived to 122 — didn’t have dementia. So if people over 110 don’t have dementia, does that mean it’s not an inevitable consequence? Certainly the incidence goes up: More than 5 million Americans 65 and older have Alzheimer’s, and by 2050, anywhere from 11 to 16 million Americans will, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. However, it’s not necessarily inevitable.
Your brain is a muscle, and it behaves just like one when used appropriately. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and a study published last year by Columbia University doctors who followed around 2,000 elderly people for 14 years found that those who were physically active had a 29 to 50 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t move around, depending on how active they were. Some scientists believe having more education lowers your risk, and reading the newspaper regularly has been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. Writing letters to the editor, running for public office, having a pet and reading good magazines all are ways of exercising your brain.