Recently, on a visit to Utah, my eyes opened to more than just its awe-inspiring natural beauty.
The otherworldly lofty peaks and limitless landscapes filled me with wonder, but so did something else: scores of fit, healthy-looking people climbing, trekking, biking and hiking. People well into their 70s and 80s looking trim, fit and vital as they traversed thousands of feet with the confident ease of youth while barely breaking a sweat. Oh, they’re so lucky, I think, blessed with good genes.
Is It Really That Simple?
I’m not naïve enough to think that illness, disease, and chronic conditions are as scarce as the rain in the desert. Wellness does not come as a free pass, nor is illness inevitable.
But what is quite apparent is that making healthy lifestyle choices goes a long way to make up for the genes we may not be blessed with.
By living healthfully, many of us can switch on youth-promoting genes and switch off genes that make you age, according to a recent Natural Geographic article, “Want to live longer? Influence your genes,” which states that it is possible to “self-engineer genetic alterations to prevent disease and boost longevity.” By the time we reach age 60, 75 percent of our health outcomes are a direct result of our choices. Rather than giving all the power (or blame) to the genes we’re born with, we need to be aware of how we are living each day.
The Proof Is in the Research
Countless studies have concurred: Longevity can be influenced by how we live our lives.
Take research from Osaka, Japan, which found a huge correlation between healthy lifestyle behaviors and increased longevity, even among people with chronic health issues. Adopting more lifestyle behaviors can boost longevity, even in people over age 80, despite having chronic conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.
Or a study from the CDC, that found up to 40 percent of premature deaths (those occurring before age 80) are preventable. Those include causes like cancer, heart disease, strokes, unintentional injuries and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Adopting healthy lifestyle changes and screenings are just two of many successful strategies.
What might be surprising is true: It is possible to alter thousands of our genes by being aware of our environment and choosing to live healthfully.
Five Longevity Boosters We All Need to Know About
Good intentions can go by the wayside. But gentle reminders can help get it done.
1. Be smoke-free (or quit). We all know that not smoking is the one of the best choices you can make for longevity. But even if you do smoke, quitting can add years to your life – as much as 10 years if you quit by age 35. Even those who quit later in life reap benefits and added years.
2. Exercise. “Research overwhelmingly links regular movement to healthy longevity,” says Naturopathic physician Lise Alschuler, professor of clinical medicine and Associate Director of the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “Our bodies are meant to move,” she says.
Exercise not only supports a longer life, but adds quality to that life, while reducing the risk of major chronic illness. (Current CDC guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity plus two days of muscle strengthening activity each week.)
3. Mental Health is Key. Simply put, stress unravels your health. “Under chronic stress, we’re more inflamed, nutrient-depleted, anxious and depressed. Our immune function is compromised, we have more digestive issues, and can be at risk for decreased bone density, too,” says Alschuler. Practicing daily stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, time outside and socializing with loved ones offer important antidotes to stress and can add years to your life.
4. Lettuce Eat Plants. A plant-forward diet with a rainbow of colors nourishes your body with powerful polyphenols, which protect our cells and provide anti-inflammatory actions. Researchers from Harvard found that eating just two servings of fruit and three of veggies a day offers the perfect mix for longevity.
5. Numbers Count. Strive for blood pressure of less than 120mmHG systolic and less than 80 mmHg; LDL cholesterol of less than 70 mg/dL; BMI of less than 27. All have been associated with greater longevity.
A Word From Some Experts
“Longevity requires that all parts of the whole work in harmony. These herbs should be cardiotonic, immunomodulating and nutritive,” says Heather Houskeeper, a certified herbalist, long-distance hiker and author. Houskeeper says cardiotonic herbs support the heart and vascular system, while immunomodulating herbs support an optimal immune system. Nutritive herbs provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and support to the digestive system.
To boost longevity, Houskeeper favors Reishi mushrooms, hawthorn, dandelion, turmeric and stinging nettle.
Dr. Alschuler, meanwhile, gives a nod toward herbal adaptogens (like American ginseng, ashwagandha, holy basil), essential fatty acids (found in fish and algae), and green tea, while also supplementing with antioxidants like vitamins C and E, nutrients like glutathione and coenzyme Q10 and minerals like selenium.
Rush University physician Thomas Holland, MD, who studies the impact of lifestyle modifications on aging, stresses that “removing foods like baked goods, whole fat dairy and fried/fast foods improves cardiovascular and neurovascular health, while eating healthfully increases circulating antioxidants in the blood and gut and ensures optimal levels of vitamins and minerals that allow our organs to function properly.” To that end, Holland gives a thumbs up to the Mediterranean, MIND and DASH diets.
It’s never too late to shed bad habits and fine-tune your good ones to slow down – and even extend — the aging process. The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis by Johns Hopkins researchers proved just that, finding in its study of more than 6,000 people who made healthy changes that their risk of death decreased by 80 percent.
Perhaps Mark Twain summed it up best when he said: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”