It’s an age-old question: How can we extend our lives and make the years we have as disease-free and pain-free as possible? If you look on social media, there are a number of so-called experts providing quick tips for extending longevity. But what does the research say? What proven advice is backed by science? A hint, according to experts: if you want to prolong your life, you have to start today.
Nathan K. LeBrasseur is co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Mayo Clinic. He says research shows beyond doubt that exercise is the most effective and robust way to prolong healthy aging. The goal, he says, is to compress morbidity until the very end of life and exercise is a great tool for this. “It’s a frontline defense against everything from Alzheimer’s disease to type 2 diabetes, cancer and even osteoarthritis,” he says.
According to LeBrasseur, exercise appears to be particularly effective in fighting aging because it thwarts mitochondrial dysfunction, a disorder that occurs when cellular structures that produce energy malfunction. It also helps detoxify the body of old and damaged cells, which can cause DNA damage over time. Ample evidence has shown that endurance exercises (done most days of the week) such as running, walking, swimming, and bicycling prolong neuromuscular, heart, and cognitive health. At the same time, resistance training, such as lifting weights several times a week, is important for maintaining muscle mass and functions important for mobility, he says.
But while structured exercise is crucial, everyday non-structural movement is also essential for living a long and healthy life. Online shopping, screen time and all things virtual have created the movement since our time, which is hurting healthy aging, says LeBrasseur. From picking up groceries to walking to the mailbox to parking farther from your destination, it’s best to expand the daily commute if you want to thrive in the years to come. “Physical inactivity is one of the biggest challenges to healthy aging,” he says.
Beyond movement, LeBrasseur says those who have more meaning and purpose in their day also tend to be happier and healthier. It’s hard to quantify in relation to exercise and we don’t know the mechanism, but it could be related to the fact that having structure and purpose opposes loneliness, which has been shown to cause an inflammatory response in the body. And chronic inflammation, a state where the body is producing inflammatory cellshas been shown to accelerate aging.
Eat for longevity
The third step to our healthy aging bowel movements is, unsurprisingly, diet. Three times a day, every day, your diet is your daily medicine if you choose the right foods. And according to a plenty of evidencethe Mediterranean diet – a way of eating inspired by those who live near the Mediterranean Sea – is the healthiest way to live a long life.
Marialaure Bonaccio is an epidemiologist at the Italian Ministry of Health who studies the impact of a Mediterranean diet on the inflammatory response. She says it’s not a particular superfood in the diet that promotes longevity, but rather a mix of foods including many fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, olive oil and red wine. “It’s the combination of staple foods typical of a Mediterranean diet that seems to stave off morbidity,” she says.
Research also showed that a Mediterranean diet appears to modulate the gut microbiota in a way that promotes longevity by increasing diversity in the gut as well as increasing the balance of good bacteria. Diet is also linked to fewer markers of inflammation in the stool.
Bonaccio notes that a very important difference in the Mediterranean diet, which seems to have an impact on lifespan, is related to the use of red wine. While in other parts of the world alcohol is consumed outside of meals, in a Mediterranean diet red wine is consumed exclusively with food. She says that’s a huge reason why it’s beneficial. When wine is accompanied by food, it is slowly absorbed into the bloodstream. This protects the liver by keeping it in the stomach longer and hence the body benefits from the antioxidants in wine without any negative impact on the liver.
Seasoning foods with olive oil instead of other forms of fat, which is typical of a Mediterranean diet, is another reason for the diet’s protective impact on aging. Olive oil is made up of monounsaturated fats which reduce the amount of bad cholesterol, also known as LDL cholesterol, which has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Ultimately, longevity is a long game. Exercise, movement, a positive attitude, and a Mediterranean diet are pretty simple, but it takes commitment to make them happen. Yet being able to move, love, eat, and have fun later in life is now a worthwhile reward.