Longevity, or living for longer than the average life expectancy, is determined by different genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. The longevity industry is an exciting field that is discovering new, innovative ways to potentially delay aging and protect against age-related diseases to boost health and lifespan. While genetic and environmental factors are more difficult to control, there are several steps you can take towards a longevity lifestyle.
What is longevity?
Longevity involves an interplay of health and lifespan and can be determined by a variety of factors including location, sex, genetics, lifestyle, environment and socioeconomic status. During the past few centuries, average life expectancy has increased globally from around 30-40 years to over 80 years. In the United States, average life expectancy at birth is now 78.8 years . Some estimates place the maximum possible human lifespan between 120 and 150 years old, however this upper limit has not yet been achieved with the oldest-living people reaching around 120 years old .
Improving health span is an integral part of living longer and is in fact the main objective of the growing longevity industry. Since most people never reach the maximum human lifespan due to disease, and since no one wants to spend their last years languishing in ill health, improving healthy life expectancy is imperative. Aging is caused by damage to the body due to genomic instability, telomere attrition, epigenetic changes and loss of proteostasis – collectively known as the ‘hallmarks of aging’. As we age, this damage accumulates, resulting in the physical signs of aging like frailty, as well as a higher risk of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer . To prolong longevity, we therefore must first tackle the problems of aging and age-related morbidity.
Longevity is a complicated concept and is thought to be determined by three main factors:
- Genetic: family history is a major factor in the likelihood of whether individuals will develop disease; for example, if one or both parents developed heart disease or cancer before the age of 50, there is an increased chance that their offspring will too. Furthermore, life expectancy can be influenced by the age at which an individual’s parents died.
- Environmental: higher socioeconomic status is associated with better health and longevity as it improves the chances of having access to health care, nutritious foods and green spaces with clean air.
- Lifestyle: unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and limited physical activity can all negatively impact longevity, but making lifestyle changes can reduce their effect.
The extent to which each factor influences longevity is debated; for example, genetics may account for around a third of your chances of surviving to 85-years-old, increasing in influence in people who live beyond 95. There is not just one ‘longevity gene’ that controls for health and lifespan, it seems to be the combined effects of hundreds of different genes which, in the right combination, can strongly promote longevity .
The longevity lifestyle
Understanding what determines longevity offers insight into the changes we can make to improve our own health and lifespan. While genetic and environmental factors are more difficult to account for, lifestyle factors are within our control and genes could get most people close to 90 years old if combined with a healthy lifestyle. Since there are multiple lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity, there is an equal number of changes to diet, exercise, sleep schedule and alcohol intake that can be made towards improving it.
The main lifestyle changes you can make to improve longevity involve eating and exercise habits. Aging is accompanied by gradual loss of muscle and energy, leading to frailty. This can make it easy to sit back and relax in retirement age, further raising the risk of developing disease and disability. Regular exercise can attenuate this, for example one study found that people aged 70-89 who followed a moderate exercise program of aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility exercises, were less likely to become disabled, and for a shorter period, compared to a control group. The combination of different types of exercise, as well as exercise duration, was an important factor in preventing disease, so be sure to include light exercise like walking alongside more intense workouts in your routine to prolong health span. Regular physical activity also prevents you from becoming overweight or obese – major risk factors for developing metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Keeping an eye on your body mass index (BMI) is also beneficial, as anything greater than 30 is a risk for reduced life expectancy .
A healthy diet is integral to longevity and can be attained by eating balanced meals consisting of fruit and vegetables complimented by healthy sources of protein, carbohydrates and fat, for example in the style of the longevity-boosting Mediterranean diet. Unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption causes damage in the body and increases the risk of disease and death, but cessation or restriction can reduce this damage. Furthermore, fasting can be used alongside a balanced diet to boost its health benefits. Caloric restriction, or supplements that mimic caloric restriction (CRMs), are associated with extending health and lifespan. For example, intermittent fasting overnight and feasting during the day promotes weight loss by reducing overall calorie intake as well as metabolising the body’s fat reserves through ketosis. During a fast, insulin levels drop, encouraging the body to use up its own fat reserves and release ketones into the bloodstream as an energy source. Fasting for longer periods comes with additional health benefits through inducing the antiaging process of autophagy, during which cells reuse their damaged organelles to renew. This is thought to protect against the mechanisms that cause aging and disease.
Sleep is also an essential component of longevity; most people require at least 7 hours of interrupted sleep to recharge the energy used throughout the day. Indeed, persistently sleeping for 6 hours or less is associated with higher risk of dementia in older adults. This is thought to be partly related to a reduction in the removal of beta-amyloid plaque from the brain that occurs during sleep, disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm . Equally, regularly enjoying relaxing activities such as meditation, yoga, walking or whatever it is that makes you happy is an effective source of stress relief and can protect against the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol on the body. Indeed, healthy aging goes hand in hand with fully enjoying and engaging with life mentally, physically and socially.
Innovators in the longevity industry seek to challenge the inevitable process of aging for better health and lifespan. Industry leaders use research, development and investment to launch effective interventions in the pursuit of improved life longevity. A major area in the industry is longevity supplements, which contain active ingredients that work on the mechanisms involved in the ‘hallmarks of aging’. Longevity supplements go beyond simply providing nutrients to prevent deficiencies, and used as part of a balanced they rather work to slow down the process of aging itself. Popular supplements include spermidine, NAD and resveratrol. Longevity is a complex concept however the simple solution of making lifestyle changes combined with taking supplements can slow aging, protect health and improve life longevity.