In recent years we have made great strides in discovering how the aging process works. However, we still are several medical discoveries away from finally being able to stop or reverse this process. In the meanwhile, is there anything we can do to possibly increase our life span and specifically our health span? The key is in our habits. It has been proven that various behaviors can help us stay young longer or, on the contrary, develop diseases and age faster. When we include these behaviors in our habits, we can influence our life spans positively or negatively. Let's take a look together at the good and bad practices to live (possibly) longer and healthier.
What are the good habits we can adopt to positively influence our longevity? In recent years, thanks to our increased scientific knowledge, we have realized how we can actually try to influence the functioning of our bodies by eating a specific type of food, sleeping at specific intervals and doing a certain amount of exercise. As a consequence, there has been a boom of publications on diets, workouts and longevity tips. These recommendations are not always based on accurate scientific assumptions. So let’s try to clarify.
Your nutrition influences your health. The reason is simple: to grow, develop and maintain your body’s functions, your cells need energy and nutrients that are extracted from the food you eat. When the food reaches your intestine, it’s broken down into smaller molecules. These molecules are then further broken down inside your cells and the result is used as fuel and building material for all functions.
Since every food is different, not only in appearance and taste but also in its nutritional properties, different foods provide different amounts of energy and nutrients to your body. Imagine your organism as an extremely complex and interconnected machine. If you give the machine what it needs, it will work optimally. If you give it too much or too little of a certain element, it will eventually have problems. In the case of the human body, incorrect nutrition can lead to heart diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers, to name a few.
If you want to live a healthy and possibly longer life, a good habit is to eat what your body needs. Of course, each body is different, but based on the Western diet of our times, we can give some advice:
Technological innovations have enabled us to achieve incredible things. However, there is one negative consequence: people today tend to spend more and more time in front of a screen, while moving less. To overcome the fact that we no longer have to run after prey in order to survive, we have taken up sport. But how much exercise should a person do to extend their life and health span? And are all the exercises the same?
According to the Department of Health and Human Services every adult should do moderate aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes per week. If your workplace is 15 minutes away from your house, you could walk or cycle to work every day and almost reach the recommended minimum amount. Another option is to do 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (swimming, running or doing sport a couple of times a week).
Alongside aerobic activity, it is important to exercise all sets of muscles (strength training). Many people, when exercising with the aim of losing weight, focus all their attention on cardio, forgetting the importance of muscle training. When you only do cardio, your body becomes less efficient at burning fat and begins to break down muscle tissue instead. This could increase the risk of developing sarcopenia, a decrease in muscle tissue often connected with aging. This disease causes people to move less, increasing their risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that sitting for too long, even if you exercise properly, reduces life expectancy. A large study of about 2 million people found that people who spend more than 3 hour sitting everyday live on average 2 years less than people who don’t. While prolonged sitting is not a cause of death by itself, it increases the rate of cardiovascular disease, decreases insulin effectiveness, and slows metabolism. So, if you want to live longer, remember to move.
Human emotions are undeniably something spectacular. They are influenced by a network of interconnected structures in the brain that form what is known as the limbic system. Our hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and limbic cortex respond to external and internal triggers producing emotions and, consequently, behavioral responses.
Despite knowing that emotions are simply responses produced by specific parts of our brain, it is often not easy to control them. Feelings, both positive and negative, influence our life decisions and, apparently, even our health span. Several studies have tried to unravel the correlation between emotions and health. While the connection is not yet completely certain, it is clear that positive thinking and optimisms can have positive health effects. To name a few:
In this regard, take a look at this 2014 study. Researchers subjected a group of 49 people with type 2 diabetes to random optimism and gratitude exercises. The patients subjected to the exercises recorded a more positive attitude and lower depression levels and risk of mortality. In fact, they were more prone to exercise, eat a healthy diet and adhere to medication. This concept applies to everyone. When we are in a good mood, it is easier to maintain a healthy lifestyle (eat better and train more).
Humans, as well as many other species of mammals, birds and insects, are social animals. This means that they are highly interactive with other members of the same species. They rely on each other for completing tasks and for defense.
While sociability is an instinctive trait of our species, it is also able to influence our life spans. Firstly, it influences our mental health. A study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK has shown that loneliness is one of the leading public health challenges of our time - it can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Social interaction helps also reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.
Additionally, social interactions positively influence our morbidity and mortality. A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found that there was "a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants who had stronger social relationships," compared to those who didn't.
It is difficult to say exactly how sociality affects health. In some studies, emotional support has positively affected patients with diabetes. Others have pointed out how social interaction may decrease negative emotional states, including depression, anger and hostility, and anxiety that lead to cardiovascular diseases. Whatever the case, having your healthy dose to social interactions seems to be good advice.
Now that we have some good habits to start adopting, what are the ones we should leave behind? There are many behaviors that, taken individually, are no big deal. Yet, in the long term, they could damage our health. For example, if you eat fast food once per month, it is very likely that your body will manage to deal with it. But what if you did it every day?
Dried leaves of tobacco plants are rolled (industrially manufactured or hand-rolled) inside a paper that is then lit up. The combustion of the dried plant leaves vaporizes and delivers active substances (nicotine and other chemicals) into the lungs where they are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and reach bodily tissue. Of the more than 7.000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 250 are known to be harmful, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia. Among the 250 known harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 69 can cause cancer.
In 2021 the number of smokers worldwide has increased to 1.3 billion. Of these, it is estimated that between 10 and 20 per cent will develop a form of lung cancer. This also applies to people subjected to passive smoke.
Apart from cancer, smoking can cause heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis. And it makes your skin look sagging, since many of its chemicals trigger the destruction of collagen and elastin. So, if you want to live longer, quit smoking.
Sleeping, like drinking and eating, plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. Our body regulates itself to make sure we get the amount of sleep that we need to recharge. After waking up, in fact, the body becomes increasingly tired during the day. This could be linked to adenosine, an organic compound produced in the brain. Adenosine levels increase throughout the day. During sleep, our body breaks down this compound. Now, most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day.
Several studies showed that not sleeping enough could shorten your lifespan. For example, by sleeping less than 6 hours on average your risk of developing dementia can increase by 30%. Additionally, compared to people who sleep the recommended 7-8 hours, you are 12% more likely to die prematurely. Insufficient sleep leads to diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, a weakened immune system, weight gain and mood disorders.
On the flip side, too much sleep can be bad for you as well. Research shows that sleeping 10 hours or more can have a negative effect on your health. The effects are similar to those of too little sleep: increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, depression and, finally, premature death.
For many, having a certain level of stress helps us to be productive. Setting deadlines allows us to finish our projects and move forward in life. For this reason, stress itself is not always a problem. The key is to recognise your stress level and not to underestimate it.
Being constantly under stress, anxiety and worry might shorten your lifespan. When your body frequently experiences stressors (external stimulus seen as causing stress) your hypothalamus sets off an alarm system in your body. Your adrenal glands respond to it by producing stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) that increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure and boost energy supplies. If this goes on for an extended period of time, you may enter a condition of chronic stress. When you are chronically stressed your level of hormones (and therefore heart rate and blood pressure) don't go back to normal levels. There are several consequences of overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones on your health:
Additionally, to release the stress, people could adopt bad behaviors that provoke instant gratification, such as drug use, overeating, gambling etc.
Chronic stress has also been discovered to have a negative effect on your telomeres. Telomeres are disposable parts of DNA that sit at the end of chromosomes and get lost during cell division. Chromosomes lose pieces of telomeres with each division, until they are left without them and can no longer divide. At this point they must be repaired, or they die or become senescent. Thus, stress has a direct influence on cellular aging. If you want to keep an active and busy lifestyle but still possibly extend your lifespan, one tip is to take breaks every once in a while where your body can relax and recharge.
Albert Einstein once said: “Once you stop learning you start dying”.
Metaphorically speaking, we can say that he was right. While the brain is not a muscle (it’s actually an organ) it is correct to say that, like a muscle, you have to exercise it to keep it healthy and functioning at its best. When you learn and exercise your brain you improve your memory, executive functions, and processing speeds.
The effort of mastering a new discipline or starting a new hobby as an adult may help you slow age-related changes in the brain and those associated with neurological conditions. For example, scientists at UC Irvine have discovered that short but repeated learning sessions can slow a process leading to symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
If you think you are “too old” to learn something new or if you just like your life the way it is, think twice. Maybe it’s time to get yourself a bit uncomfortable and engage with new surroundings, activities and people.
It is not easy to start adopting a new habit or to leave an old one behind. Yet, sometimes it may be worth trying. Especially when it could help you live a healthier and longer life. You can start simple, setting a sleeping schedule for the next few days or eating healthier food at least twice a week.
At Tomorrow we think that people should be able to choose how long they want to live. We think that diseases and aging should not be a limit. Through cryopreservation we give people an opportunity to pause their bodies just after legal death. When medical technology will be able to treat the diseases that caused their death, they could potentially be revived and live a longer life in the future.