How to live longer: five habits that have been slowly reducing your lifespan

Generally, healthy lifestyle choices like eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and a good sleep schedule are enough to protect health and prolong longevity. The dangers of smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and high-fat diets to health are now common knowledge thanks to high-profile public health campaigns of the past. However, there remain some less obvious daily habits that can gradually limit lifespan over time. Researchers are uncovering new findings about the intricacies of the human body and how best to take care of it to protect health and live longer. As this knowledge grows, it can be used to inform lifestyle changes to prevent everyday activities from reducing your chance of living for longer.

Secret sugars that stop you living longer

We all know that the high-fat, high-sugar convenience foods common to the modern diet can impair health and lifespan when eaten regularly. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in fruit and vegetables, from which it can be processed and isolated to produce refined sugar. We are taught the dangers of refined sugar from childhood and that eating too many sweets can lead to anything from rotten teeth to diabetes. As adults, most of us try our best to limit our refined sugar intake from obvious sources like cakes, biscuits and soft drinks. The hidden sugars found in seemingly healthy foods pose a more sinister threat to health. These secret sugars can be found in anything from tomato sauce, baked beans, fruit yoghurts, pre-made pasta sauces and salad dressings. White bread and pasta are also major culprits, as carbohydrates form the basis of most meals in the Western diet. While complex carbohydrates like wholegrains and vegetables provide the body with vitamins, minerals and fibre, simple carbohydrates like refined sugar provide energy but have no nutritional value. Indeed, the risk of cardiovascular mortality increases with the percentage of added sugar in the diet regardless of age, sex, physical activity level or body-mass index [1]. Refined sugar should be limited in the diet to avoid its pernicious health effects.

Generally, the more highly processed food is, the more added sugar it can contain. Simple swaps include eating whole wheat bread and pasta, 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. Making food from scratch, although more time consuming, is better for your health and is most likely to prove tastier than pre-made convenience food.

Sedentary lifestyle

The benefits of regular exercise for living longer are well-documented, and the CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of both aerobic and muscle strengthening exercise every week [2]. This protects against chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, major causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. However, only 20% of Americans manage to meet these guidelines and most people spend much of the day sitting in front of a desk for work or study. This can negatively impact health over time, and occasionally working out cannot compensate for the inactivity of the eight-hour working day. Therefore, taking regular breaks from your desk to walk around and stretch, walking or cycling to and from work or during your lunch break, or attending evening exercise classes are essential to protect your future cardiovascular health and longevity.

Limited social interaction

While it may feel productive to skip socialising to finish work, studies or chores, you might actually be harming your health and wellbeing. Human beings have evolved as social creatures and we require regular interaction to function. However, the break-up of the traditional nuclear family and the rise of social media in the modern lifestyle has limited daily social interaction. This has been exacerbated with the coronavirus pandemic, when social isolation became a important public health intervention, causing a parallel pandemic in mental health issues. The quality and quantity of social interaction contributes to both our mental health as well as physical morbidity and mortality.

One study found that the influence of social relationships on mortality were comparable to risk factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and obesity [3]. Strong social relationships can make you live longer through having access to a dependable support network, while enjoying time with friends releases endorphins and can make your life feel worthwhile. Maintaining an active social life, without indulging in hedonism, can protect longevity. Indeed, staying active physically, mentally and socially as we age appears to reduce the risk of age-related disease.

Dental care for living longer 

We can become so preoccupied with eating healthily and regularly exercising that our dental health often takes lower priority. We all know to brush our teeth twice a day. However, flossing is not emphasised so much but is essential in removing plaque build up from between the teeth. Eventually, excess plague from poor oral hygiene can lead to periodontitis (gum disease) the first sign of which is the worrying red blood spit out in the sink. Although this is concerning enough already, the low-grade inflammation caused by gum disease places strain on the immune system. This can increase the risk of other health complications, and serious illness could start in the mouth. Gum disease has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, heart disease and diabetes, illnesses all linked to inflammation. Indeed, one study found that gum disease was associated with increased cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s, possibly through mechanisms controlling the immune system’s inflammatory response [4]. It is hypothesized that chronic low-level inflammation in the gums starting in young adulthood may develop into inflammation in other parts of the body leading to age-related disease later in life. To prevent this, brushing and flossing your teeth twice a day for optimum oral health and longer life is advised.

We can become so preoccupied with eating healthily and regularly exercising that our dental health often takes lower priority. We all know to brush our teeth twice a day.
Photograph: superkitina/Unsplash

Over cooking

Heat has been used in food preparation for millennia and is an element that may help or hinder longevity. Cooking raw food aids with digestion, allowing our body to absorb more nutrients. However, in some instances, using heat on certain food types may have negative health impacts. Olive oil is the staple ingredient of the longevity-boosting Mediterranean diet beloved of nonagenarians living in the world’s Blue Zones. However, cooking with olive oil at high temperatures may compromise its quality and health attributes. The research into this area is conflicted, so it may be prudent to use olive oil on a medium heat. Equally, overcooked food like bread and potatoes can be high in the known carcinogenic acrylamide [5]. The acrid taste of burnt or charred food often prevents us from eating it, but the empirical evidence of whether barbecued food can actually cause cancer is conflicting. Generally consuming a balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables, protein and complex carbohydrates is one of the most effective ways to live longer.