Longevity is a growing space, with $2 billion invested in longevity businesses in 2021 alone. The industry’s focus is not only on how long we live for (lifespan) but also how long we live for in good health (healthspan). This is largely influenced by genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. While our genes and environment are more difficult to control, there are certain lifestyle changes we can make to help safeguard our health and longevity on the path to living for longer.
What is longevity, healthspan and lifespan?
If you live beyond the average life expectancy of around 80 years old in good health, you could be described as having longevity. Longevity is a combination of health and lifespan that has generally been improving over the past few centuries. In the United States for example, average life expectancy has increased dramatically, and a baby born in the US today could expect to see their 77th birthday .
The maximum potential lifespan of human beings is not fully known but is estimated to lie somewhere between 120 and 150 years old, although this has not yet been reached .
Human beings are relatively long-lived creatures in the natural world. However, our lifespans can seem insignificant compared to other species. The longest living mammal species is thought to be the bow head whale, exceeding 150 years. While the mysterious Greenland shark that lurks in the depths of the cold Atlantic and Arctic oceans is estimated to live for a maximum of 500 years.
Some species can effectively live forever, like the Turritopsis dohrnii, otherwise known rather fittingly as the immortal jelly fish, which can return to its polyp stage giving it potentially infinite life. Other animals possess impressive regenerative capabilities, for example scientists have long studied the ability of zebra fish to regenerate their hearts, in the hope that this could inform cardiovascular research.
While human life expectancy has increased, the years we remain in good health has been slower to catch up. Some people still do not reach old age due to age-related diseases, and most people spend their last years in ill health. This imbalance between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy is what the longevity industry strives to address.
Aging plays a major part in disease. As we age, our bodies accumulate cellular and molecular damage known as the hallmarks of aging. This produces the physical signs of aging like wrinkles and frailty, as well as increasing our risk of age-related diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and diabetes.
While aging itself is a seemingly inevitable process, the health issues that often accompany it do not have to be. To improve longevity, we therefore must first tackle the problems of aging and its detrimental effects on health.
What determines longevity?
Longevity is determined by a complicated interplay of three main factors, namely genetic, environmental and lifestyle. The extent to which each of these factors effect longevity has been debated and is most likely a combination of all three.
- Genetic: family history can be a major factor in whether an individual will develop disease, with certain common conditions running in families.
- Environmental: where we live can also influence our health. Higher socioeconomic status is associated with health due to better access to health care, better water quality and clean air to name a few.
- Lifestyle: Generally, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule can safeguard longevity. Equally, unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and limited physical activity all negatively impact longevity.
Genetics vs epigenetics
A major factor influencing our health and longevity is something we’re born with; our genetic makeup. Our DNA contains different nucleotides, known as the building blocks of life, that control how we develop, live and reproduce.
The complete set of DNA, the genome, contains thousands of genes that control different phenotypes depending on how they are expressed. Genes can be expressed in almost limitless different combinations. Specific genes have been associated with different diseases, hence why certain conditions can be traced in our family histories, from heart disease to male pattern baldness.
Having a family history of disease can increase the likelihood of individuals developing that disease, and life expectancy can be influenced to some extent by the age at which an individual’s parents died.
Genes are thought to influence lifespan by around 25% and become more influential as we get older. Genes may account for around a third of your chances of surviving to 85-years-old, but increase in influence in people who live beyond 95.
Scientist were once unsure whether longer lifespan in certain families was due to genetics or a shared lifestyle. One study compared the survival times of the husbands and brothers of centenarian women and found that the brothers lived longer than the husbands, despite sharing the same environment for most of their lives.
This gave early indication of the influence of genetics over environment. However, there is not a single ‘longevity gene’ that controls how long we live for, rather a complex combinations of genes controls our health and lifespan .
Genes involved in DNA repair, telomere preservation and regulation of free radicals have been identified as influencing longevity, and when impaired, exacerbate the cellular aging of senescence. This holds future potential of activating or deactivating these genes accordingly.
This is where the emerging field of epigenetics comes in. While genes are important, they are not the deciding factor of our longevity fates. Behaviour and environment factors can change the way genes are expressed, for better or for worse. This is known as epigenetics.
Epigenetic changes do not change your DNA sequence, but rather change how your body reads a DNA sequence. Responding to external factors like nutrition, behaviour, stress and physical activity can change how our genes are expressed, leading to targeted therapies.
How to improve your longevity
Through epigenetics, making healthy lifestyle changes today can affect your DNA expression and improve longevity, altering your genetic fate. Eating well and exercising regularly are well established as guaranteed ways to safeguard health and longevity, while other daily habits are less obvious.
Eating for longevity
We all know that our diet impacts health, hence the adage ‘you are what you eat’. In practice however, many people regularly eat the high-fat, low-nutrition processed food common to the modern diet.
Considering that a balanced diet is key to health, these food types are fine in moderation. However, regular consumption can lead to heart disease, neurodegeneration and cancer, which have increased in prevalence due to the aging population.
Eating the Mediterranean diet common to some of the world’s Blue Zones, where inhabitants often live beyond 90 years old, is a good place to start in eating for longevity. The diet is high in fruit and vegetables, which we are instructed to eat five-a-day of for good reason. Eating five portions of nutrient-rich fruit and veg every day is associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality .
Whole grains should also form the basis of your diet and can be used to replace refined carbohydrates like white bread. Additional health benefits can come from eating nuts and berries, common to the Nordic diet, which are a source of healthy fats and polyphenols with antioxidant benefits. Drink-wise, feel free to indulge in green tea, coffee and hot cocoa, as a high intake can reduce the risk of all-cause mortality due to their high concentration of polyphenols .
Eating highly processed foods instead of whole foods can impair longevity and should be limited in the diet. The main culprits being red and processed meat, sugar and excessive alcohol consumption, which can all negatively impact health and longevity .
In addition to a balanced diet, it may be prudent to experiment with fasting. Used for centuries across cultures and religions, fasting is now used as an effective and sustainable weight loss method. It promotes weight loss through ketosis, the process by which the body switches from using food for energy to fat stores. Longer fasts place cells under nutrient stress, triggering the antiaging process of autophagy.
An easier alternative to fasting is longevity supplements. Popular longevity supplements on the market include spermidine, NAD and resveratrol, which all purport to have antiaging and longevity benefits. Longevity supplements contain active ingredients that work on the primary hallmarks of aging that cause molecular and cellular damage, slowing them down. For example, spermidine supplements act as caloric restriction mimetic (CRM), which tricks the body into the fasting and induce autophagy.
Drinking enough water
Water is the most important nutrient in the body and helps it to perform vital functions, including removing toxins from the body, nutrient absorption, digestion and circulation. Our supply needs to be continually replenished, with a recommended daily water intake of eight glasses.
Drinking enough water can also be linked to improved longevity. Indeed, the increase in average lifespan seen in the past few centuries is in part due to better access to clean, safe water, as drinking contaminated or unclean water can introduce pathogens into the body and cause illness .
Staying hydrated can also reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases like hypertension, fatal coronary heart disease and cerebral infarction .
It may also reduce the risk of colon and bladder cancer .
Physical activity reduces the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. This translates into a 30% decrease in all-cause mortality and can extend life expectancy by 0.4-6.9 years! .
Considering these health benefits, it is surprising that 80% of people in the United States do not exercise enough. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week including aerobic exercise that protects cardiovascular health, as well as strength training, which prevents muscle weakening as we age that can lead to conditions like sarcopenia and frailty.
Since exercise can also improve mood and concentration by releasing endorphins, it is worthwhile to integrate different types of exercise into your daily routine, from walking or cycling to and from work, going to the gym or playing team sports.
Sleep is the deep state of rest that everybody slips into at night, allowing the body to recover and repair from the preceding day. Disruptions in our sleep schedule can play havoc with the body’s circadian rhythm, its natural sleep/wake cycle.
Long term, interrupted sleep of less than 7 hours per night can accelerate epigenetic aging and increase the risk of chronic conditions that impact longevity. So important is sleep to health and longevity that researchers have even compared its effects to that of diet and exercise.
Chronic sleep deprivation disrupts the cycle of hormones that regulate metabolism, appetite and stress. Over time, this can lead to weight gain and obesity, exacerbate mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and impair the immune response .
It can also lead to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Luckily, sleeping between 7-9 hours a night has a protective effect, and getting a good nights sleep for better health and longevity is something you can start tonight.
Daily practices for health and longevity
While most lifestyle changes for better health and longevity are rather obvious, there are some less obvious daily habits that may be harming your health.
Our dental health can often be overlooked, however poor oral health can be an indication of other chronic conditions. Everyone knows to brush and floss our teeth everyday, as this is essential in removing plaque build-up.
This prevents periodontitis, or gum disease, which can cause worrying red blood to appear when you spit in the sink. The low-grade inflammation caused by gum disease can strain the immune system, increasing the risk of poor holistic health. For example, gum disease has been associated with rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, heart disease and diabetes, which are all linked to inflammation.
One study linked gum disease with cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s, possibly through mechanisms controlling the immune system’s inflammatory response .
Cooking raw food aids with digestion and allows our bodies to absorb more nutrients. However, overcooking food may have negative impacts on health. While olive oil is the main ingredient used in the Mediterranean diet, cooking with it at high temperatures may compromise its quality. Overcooking food like bread and potatoes can produce the known carcinogen acrylamide .
The research in this area is conflicting, however it may be prudent to avoid overcooking food and using olive oil only at a medium temperature.
While eating refined sugar as an occasional treat is fine within a balanced diet, there are more sinister sugars that lurk in otherwise “healthy” food. A simple carbohydrate found in fruit and vegetables, sugar can be processed to produce refined sugar. Obvious sources of refined sugar include cakes, sweets, soft drinks and white carbohydrates.
Less obvious sources of sugar include tomato sauce, baked beans, fruit yogurts, pre-made pasta sauces and salad dressings. It is important to limit these sugars as the percentage of added sugar in the diet increases the risk of cardiovascular mortality regardless of age, sex, physical activity level and body mass index .
Simple swaps include eating whole wheat bread and pasta instead of refined carbohydrates, making your own pasta sauces from scratch and choosing reduced sugar varieties of sauces. Enjoy drinks high in sugar like fruit juice, smoothies or soft drinks only alongside meals.
With the demands of hectic modern life, it can be difficult to find moments to relax. Constantly elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, can damage health. Reducing stress and releasing endorphins, the body’s natural stress relief hormone can prevent this.
Enjoying activities from exercising, cooking, meeting with friends or having a relaxing glass of wine should be prioritised. Remaining mentally, physically and socially active as we age is important to maintaining health and longevity.