In a famous study conducted in 1993 at the University of California at San Francisco, scientists figured out a way to double the life span of worms. They damaged the gene that causes worms to age (call it the Grim Reaper gene) and slightly modified another gene that helps keep worms vigorous (a.k.a. the Fountain of Youth gene). The breakthrough had profound implications for living longer—but, alas, only if you are a worm.
Scientists still don’t know how to safely tweak your DNA and extend the human life span. But thanks to cutting-edge research, they do know a lot about making the years you have as healthy and happy as possible. “Seventy percent of all age-related disease is related to lifestyle choices”—for example, your drinking and eating habits—“and only about 30 percent is driven by your genes,” says Henry Lodge, M.D., an associate clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. That means you have a lot more power over aging gracefully than you think. On these pages, you’ll find seven surprising and doable ways to maintain your health and happiness as you get older. (Who needs a modified Fountain of Youth gene, after all?)
1. Bake a Pie. Plant Some Flowers. (Triathlon Training Optional.)
You need to be active during your midlife to remain lively in your golden years. But being active may not be as taxing as you think.
Experts say that just a little exercise can work wonders. Ralph Paffenbarger Jr., M.D., one of the principal investigators of a pioneering Harvard University alumni study on mortality rates, found that people who regularly expended 2,000 or more calories a week added about two years to their lives. And a recently concluded 35-year population study of the city of Copenhagen, which included about 20,000 men and women ages 20 to 93, found that consistently jogging as little as one hour a week at a slow to average pace could increase the life expectancy of men by 6.2 years and of women by 5.6 years.
What’s more, you can get major health benefits from hobbies that don’t involve any traditional exercise. “Your goal should be to live a broader, more holistically active lifestyle,” says Dan Buettner, the author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest ($15, amazon.com). That means engaging in a nonsedentary activity that you really enjoy for about two to three hours a week. Buettner recommends gardening. “Not only are you engaging in low-intensity physical activity,” he says, “but you may also end up with heart-healthy vegetables.”
Also, having a positive perspective on life, which is often generated by doing fun things, can help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s good, since higher levels of cortisol are linked with shorter telomeres—protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that help safeguard DNA against an increased risk of degenerative diseases that come with aging. “Telomeres are like the plastic ends on a shoelace that keep it from fraying,” explains Thea Singer, the author of Stress Less (for Women) ($16, amazon.com).
2. Tap Into Your Inner Buddha
Another way to keep cortisol from flooding your bloodstream? Activate your “Buddha nerve.” That’s the name that Gayatri Devi, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at New York University and the director of the New York Memory & Healthy Aging Services, an integrative-health practice, has given the vagus nerve. It extends from your brain to your abdomen and all your internal organs and has the power to slow down your heartbeat to make you feel calm. Try taking six consecutive 10-second-long breaths any time you feel stress—whether acute stress or regular, stuck-in-traffic stress. A recent study published in the International Journal of Cardiology noted that the six-breath method even lessens anxiety and heart palpitations. When you’re feeling panicky, you can also try putting your feet up. Lying down with your legs raised above your head increases blood flow to your heart, which automatically lowers your heart rate, helping to keep you mellow and your cortisol level from spiking, according to Devi.