Longevity is a particular area of interest of mine both professionally and personally. It is an area fraught with misinformation. Some of the misinformation is propagated for commercial reasons, but a lot of it is just because the science of longevity is really just getting started. Here’s a quick list of longevity facts that may surprise you
1. It's not about the genetics, it's about the epigenetics
Epigenetics is a relatively new field of investigation in science. It is the study of genetic traits that can be turned on and off by factors unrelated to inherited genetics. It is an area of study full of surprises.
For example, researchers trained a group of male mice to fear a certain smell. They impregnated female mice that were never in contact with the male mice with sperm from the males. The offspring of this experiment were born fearing the same smell. Furthermore, the grand-offspring also inherited the trait. A learned behavior somehow was imprinted into the genetic code of these mice.
Epigenetics is a hot field of interest in longevity research. We know there is a genetic component to longevity. But new research is showing that certain genetic markers for longevity like stress reactor genes or insulin regulation genes can be “turned on or off” through behavioral and environmental changes. That new diet you adopted to drop a few pounds may not only add years to your life, you may also be adding years to your unborn children’s lives.
2. Exercise lessIn a much talked about study, researchers in Copenhagen followed regular joggers in a long-term health study. They expected to find a direct linear relationship supporting the hypothesis that the more frequently you exercise the longer (on average) you will live.
However, the data revealed an interesting twist. The most frequent exercisers had no better longevity than people who didn’t exercise at all.
Now, before you tear up your gym membership, let’s be clear. There is a strong positive correlation between exercise and longevity. But, it turns out there is an optimal frequency range for exercise. People who exercised an average of 1-2.4 hours per week lived significantly longer than non-exercisers. However, the benefit dropped off as the frequency of exercise increased and there was no longevity benefit at all for people who exercised more than, 4 hours per week.
There has since been some criticism of this study. They did not separate men from women in the study and it turns out that more than 80% of the obsessive exercisers were men (I just heard smug, “hah!” from my women readers.)
Since women live longer than men on average across all demographics, the heavy concentration of men in the frequent exercise group does skew the data. But, nonetheless, once they corrected the results for this factor, the data still shows that there is such a thing as exercising too much.
3. Friends (not family) add years to your lifeA study at Brigham Young University found that people with high or adequate social interaction have a 50% lower chance of mortality than people with low social interaction. They also found a linear correlation between social interaction and longevity. It seems, on average, the more friends you have the longer you live.
Low social interaction was found to be a greater risk factor than even smoking or alcoholism and twice as dangerous as being overweight. In other words, a jolly fat man with lots of friends is half as likely to die as a healthy loner.
Surprisingly, there was no similar finding for a family. The researchers found no longevity benefit to having either a large or “close” family.
I know some of you are right now taking a screenshot of your Facebook page to show your insurance company so you can bring your rates down. But before you go there, you should know that social media friends don’t count. The study found a positive correlation only with physical world friends. Facebook-only friends don’t count.
4. Going back to school may add more years to your life than going back to the gym.A 2012 study by MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society confirmed earlier research demonstrating that the single factor that seems to have the most positive impact on longevity is education.
On average, people with a high school education or less still have the life expectancy of the average American in the 1960’s. Meanwhile, the life expectancy of Americans with a 4-year university degree or more is now more than a decade longer than their 1960’s peers.
While the impact is most profound for people who continued their education right out of school, the research also shows a benefit also for people who go back to school later in life.
Researchers debate the cause for the correlation between education and longevity. The factors seem to be increased awareness of healthy lifestyle choices, better access to healthcare as a result of higher income and less physical stress.
5. Want to live longer? – Fire the maid (and the cook)!It would be nice to think that having more free time equates to a longer life. But a 2012 study in Taiwan shows that there are very real health benefits from doing for yourself as long as possible.
Seniors who cook for themselves have a 47% lower mortality risk and seniors who clean their own houses have a 30% lower risk.
Some of that benefit is simply the result of a less sedentary lifestyle choice. But after controlling for physical activity, by comparing people who exercised for exercise sakes vs. people whose “exercise” was in the form of self-care, the data still show a lifespan benefit to doing for yourself.
It may be that the intellectual stimulation of self-care, a greater sense of self-reliance and greater control over food choices all play a roll here.
6. Eat the Leaves of a Tiny Chinese Relative of the Cucumber - In 1970, China conducted the nation's first true census. Demographers discovered two Southern regions with disproportionate percentages of people over age 100. After decades of research scientists announced the "secret" to the local longevity was habitual consumption of the leaves of a small local vine related to the cucumber.
This herb, called Gynostemma in English, Jiaogulan in Chinese, has since been shown in over 6,000 studies to offer a broad range of protections against the common symptom of aging including inflammation, high blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.
So, in summary, if you want to foster super-longevity, have parents who made healthy choices, exercise (but not too much), hang out with friends as much as possible preferably in between classes at the local university and, for God’s sake, pick up your own damn socks!
Hedge you bets with Gynostemma tea three times per day!