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.
3. Protect Your Joints
Every joint is a complex system of bones, muscles, tendons, and cartilage that act as a unit. As you get older, your weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and ankles) are often the first to show signs of aging. Why? The cartilage and the tendons lose water content over time, making them less flexible and elastic, which ultimately results in pain.
If you’re just starting to feel the first zings of joint pain (for instance, when you get up in the morning or stand for too long), you’re going to need to do more than garden. To promote long-term joint health, “try workouts that combine cardio, strength training, and agility and relaxation exercises,” says Gregg T. Nicandri, M.D., an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in Rochester, New York. He recommends that each week you aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like brisk walking and free-weight muscle toning—plus, optimally, yoga two or more days a week. (This is only a recommendation. Keep in mind that anything you do to strengthen your joints is helpful.)
If you are experiencing the early stages of arthritis or are suffering from persistent inflammatory joint pain, consider trying Tai Chi. Studies show that this practice gives you similar benefits to yoga but is less wearing on joints. And while all doctors agree that exercise is essential to joint health, the jury is still out on supplements (such as glucosamine), which have been shown to offer relief to people with moderate to severe arthritis but don’t work for everyone. (If you’ve considered using them, first discuss this with your doctor.)
4. Know Your Numbers
Your blood pressure and cholesterol level may be the best indicators of how you will age. According to Michael Roizen, M.D., the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, you should maintain a blood-pressure reading of 115/75 or lower; an overall cholesterol level of 200 or lower; and an HDL cholesterol level of 50 or higher. (HDL is the kind of cholesterol that is thought to reduce the risk of coronary disease.)
The best way to hit those goals? Eating well. While the famous Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meat, nuts, and heart-healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil—has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and promote heart health, you don’t need to follow it religiously to reap those benefits. According to Roizen, the trick is to take processed foods out of your diet and replace them with foods proven to reduce bad LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Some to consider: potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, sweet potatoes, oranges, and tomatoes. These all help your kidneys flush sodium (which makes blood pressure rise) out of your bloodstream. Berries are also known to knock points off your blood-pressure reading. A study conducted in 2011 by the University of East Anglia and Harvard University found that people who eat at least one serving of blueberries a week reduce the risk of developing hypertension by 10 percent. And save room for dessert: Eating minimally sweetened chocolate (meaning a cocoa content of 70 percent or higher) can shave off cholesterol points, too.
5. Don’t Skip Book Club
A groundbreaking 1964 study conducted by physician Stewart Wolf found that a close-knit Italian American community living in Roseto, Pennsylvania, had low mortality rates despite the fact that the locals smoked, suffered from obesity, and worked long hours equal to those of people in other neighborhoods. The reason? “Being among friends is relaxing, which lowers blood pressure and promotes healing,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Even if you can’t gather with all your family members and friends on a daily basis, experts say that you can still tack quality years onto your life by adding regular standing dates with close friends to your calendar (think lunches, book groups, movie nights, and weekend getaways). In a 2010 study on social relationships and mortality risks published in Plos Medicine, a scientific journal, researchers concluded that the influence of insufficient social relationships on the risk of death is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, such as smoking and obesity. Bottom line: Eat, drink, and be merry—moderately, and with friends—as often as you can.
In general, the more education you have, the more opportunities you’ll have—which in turn increase your chances of having a longer and happier life. A new study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior looked at the mortality differences between white women who didn’t graduate from high school and those who had a high school diploma or more. The study found that the less educated women had a 9 percent greater chance of dying than did their more educated peers. The authors hypothesize that having more education may set off a virtuous cycle that includes employment and better health. Also, “being educated increases your cognitive reserves,” says Devi. “In other words, it keeps more parts of your brain more active for longer.”
Even if you’re a Ph.D., you shouldn’t rest on your academic laurels. You need to keep learning throughout your life. Ideally, says Devi, you should engage a part of your mind that you don’t rely on: “There’s this interesting concept of learned nonuse, which basically means that if a part of the brain isn’t used, it becomes less adept.” So diversify your cognitive portfolio by, say, trying to build something if you’re a writer, taking a music class if you’re a natural athlete, or learning to paint if you’re an accountant.
7. Be Good
Recent research shows that being thoughtful may be the best thing you can do to ensure a long, happy life. Researchers Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin at the University of California at Riverside conducted a study of 1,500 people, examining 80 years of their lives to determine the causes of longevity, and found that the people who consistently behaved in this manner thrived. “The unconscientious subjects, though bright, were more likely to grow up and have poor marriages, smoke, drink, and be relatively unsuccessful at work and die at younger ages,” says Friedman. See, your mom was right: If you want to win at the game of life, it really does pay to be nice.
Want more tips on healthy aging? Seven centenarians share their own live-long advice.