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The Low-hanging Fruit of Longevity: 10 Easy Practices To Improve Health And Longevity That You Can Adopt Right Now

Posted on 31 January 2022

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On this site, we often cover cutting edge technologies that could one day be used to extend human lifespan and slow the ageing process. It’s exciting to hear how treatments like blood plasma factors, gene therapy or hyperbaric oxygen therapy might lead to human rejuvenation in the future. Unfortunately, an intervention like hyperbaric oxygen therapy isn’t exactly something the average person can just do at home. Luckily, we think we know of quite a few ways you can extend your lifespan – and the number of years lived in good health – for relatively little effort when you consider the potential benefits.

We say potential benefits – it’s important to remember that proving more than a correlation when it comes to human lifespan is often challenging, and some of the more unusual entries in this list don’t have much human evidence at all. This was taken into account when it came to ranking the entries, alongside the estimated reduction in mortality achievable, and how easy (not pleasant!) that reduction would be to achieve. What follows is a list of the 10 practices we deem to offer the best ratio of effort vs reward in terms of health and lifespan extension. They are the ‘low hanging fruits’ of longevity.

10: Don’t Fear The Cold

Evidence: Mechanistic, animal studies

Effect: Boosts calorie burning ‘good fat’ and boosts cells repair systems

Difficulty: Moderate

Would you like to save money on your heating bills and potentially live longer in the process? Then why not turn off your central heating for a short period of time? The benefits of cold therapy have been touted for millennia, but can subjecting yourself to mild hypothermia really improve health and longevity. The answer, according to science, is maybe. There are multiple well established cellular mechanisms by which cold temperatures should extend lifespan. Cold temperatures promote the maintenance of thermogenic adipose tissue, aka brown fat. This is the ‘good fat’ that consumes energy in order to generate heat, and has been associated with reduced risk of age related diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

What is the difference between white and brown fat cells? - Quora
Brown fat cells are packed with mitochondria that consume energy to generate heat.

Cold exposure appears to have benefits at the cellular level, such as by promoting the production of new mitochondria and by activating pathways that help cells to resist and repair damage. Animal studies have suggested that cold exposure can slightly extend lifespan of fruit flies and rats, but this remains unproven in humans.

9: Meditate

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Reduced stress and anxiety, probable reduction in mortality.

Difficulty: Easy

Much of the evidence directly linking meditation to slowing the rate of ageing is questionable. However, there is some good evidence to suggest that meditation can reduce the risk of age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease through stress reduction, thereby prolonging lifespan. There is also evidence that chronic stress promotes processes thought to drive ageing, such as telomere shortening and inflammation, and so it is not unreasonable to suppose that meditation might slow ageing, even if proving so is challenging due to the generally poor quality of evidence.

8: Pay Attention To The Nutrients In Your Diet

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Variable – potential reduction in mortality by avoiding some nutrient deficiencies.

Difficulty: Moderate

While the overall consumption and balance of macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) in our diets have the larger impact on our health, ensuring we consume sufficient quantities of certain specific nutrients may yield consequential health benefits. Many people do not consume enough of certain nutrients (mostly vitamins and minerals) in their diet. This may be more common among the elderly, as absorption of these nutrients by the gut declines. Lack of iron, iodine and vitamin D (which can be consumed or produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight) are among the most common deficiencies in the world. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to obtain the recommended quantities of these nutrients by making a few adjustments to your diet.

7: Use Your Brain

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Up to 30% reduced risk of dementia by engaging in cognitive activities.

Difficulty: Easy

Contrary to what was previously thought, we now know that the adult brain retains some ability to restructure itself and may even grow new neurons. However, research suggests that if you don’t use your brain, you lose it, as inactive neurons die. There is some evidence suggesting that lack of mental activity translates to increased risk of dementia and increased mortality. Much of this evidence comes from observational studies in which scientists measured participants’ engagement in mentally active leisure activities, and found this to correlate with reduced risk of dementia. This makes the evidence less convincing, as the correlation could have been caused by other factors, such as the acquisition of social connections (which are linked to reduced mortality). However, some randomised controlled trials do suggest that certain types of cognitive exercises can at the very least reduce the risk of dementia. For example, a trial in 2802 initially healthy participants found that exercises aimed at increasing ‘speed of processing’ reduced risk of dementia by around 30%.

Overall, the exact benefits of cognitive activity levels aren’t entirely clear, but there’s enough evidence to support the idea that engaging in more cognitively demanding activities probably benefits health and longevity.

6: Be Positive And Act Younger Than Your Age

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: 7.6 years increased lifespan.

Difficulty: Moderate

While it may seem hard to believe, evidence does support the possibility of ‘thinking yourself younger’. You can read a more detailed explanation of that evidence here. In essence, people who have overall negative perceptions of ageing live shorter lives on average, even when those opinions of ageing are expressed long before they experience any age-related disability. If, on the other hand, people make an effort to behave more like a younger version of themselves, their health appears to improve.

When people experience a challenging environment, they tend to experience stronger biological stress responses when they believe themselves less capable of overcoming said challenge, which may contribute to increased risk of age-related diseases. It may also simply be that positive self perceptions of ageing are linked to healthier behaviours – people are more likely to look after their own health if their self-esteem is higher. Regardless of the mechanism, the evidence suggests that adopting positive attitudes towards ageing is beneficial for health and longevity.

5: Limit Your Intake Of Carbohydrates And Trans Fatty Acids

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Up to 33% reduced all-cause mortality when substituting carbohydrates for plant-based fat and protein; Up to 25% for lowest trans fat intake compared with highest trans fat intake

Difficulty: Moderate

Nutrition is a complex field full of conflicting evidence, much of which is of a poor quality. Nevertheless, two types of nutrients stand out as indisputable promoters of age-related disease: glucose (the product of carbohydrate breakdown) and trans-unsaturated fatty acids.

Glucose is essential for humans – indeed in the absence of dietary glucose, the liver is capable of creating new glucose from other nutrients even though doing so results in the loss of energy. However, anyone wishing to age slowly should limit the amount of glucose in their diet where possible (especially in the form of rapidly absorbed simple sugars), as glucose is implicated in pathways thought to be fundamental to the ageing process. Glucose scarcity leads to the inhibition of a protein called mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), which in turn slows cell division and enhances cellular repair processes. According to our current understanding of cellular ageing, this should result in a slowing of the ageing process. mTOR is also inhibited by the drug rapamycin, which has been shown to slow ageing in mice. Additionally, glucose can react with proteins in the blood to form advanced glycation end-products (AGE’s), which can damage other proteins and are thought to contribute to ageing. Finally, glucose is the primary modifiable driver of insulin resistance, which itself contributes to most other age-related diseases.

mTOR Inhibitors in Cancer, Health & Aging | Aging Matters Magazine
mTOR controls cell growth and repair in response to the availability of nutrients. Animal experiments suggest that inhibiting mTOR can slow the ageing process.

Trans-unsaturated fatty acids are considered the least healthy type of fat that you can eat. Like glucose, fat is essential for the human body. However, trans fats are undesirable because they lead to an increase in low-density lipoprotein particles (LDL), also known as ‘bad cholesterol’. LDL transports cholesterol to cells via the blood, and plays an important role in multiple age-related diseases, particularly the world’s deadliest disease – atherosclerosis. Research also suggests that LDL promotes inflammation, which is thought to be a key driver of almost all age-related diseases and of ageing itself.

Meta-analyses suggest that reduction of carbohydrate consumption until it makes up no more than 50% of total daily energy intake is associated with reduced all-cause mortality. Greater reductions further reduced mortality, but only if carbohydrates were substituted with plant-derived fat and protein. Substitution with animal-derived fat and protein was actually associated with an increase in mortality. Trans fats intake, meanwhile, shows an association with all-cause mortality in meta-analyses, which appears to be dose-dependant.

4: Have Supportive Social Connections

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: 50% increased probability of survival for those with strong social relationships in comparison to those with weak social relationships.

Difficulty: Moderate

Evidence suggests a surprisingly powerful relationship between social relationships and reduced mortality. One meta-analysis (which you can read more on here) found that participants were on average 50% more likely to still be alive by the end of the 7.5 year follow-up if they had strong social connections. It’s still not clear why this relationship exists. It may simply be that being part of a social network promotes other healthy behaviours and self-care. Social relationships may also influence health through ‘stress buffering’, providing forms of support that help people adapt in the face of stressful life events or illness.

The benefits (presented as the natural logarithm of the odds ratio) of stronger social relationships in comparison with other factors with well established health benefits.

3: Align Your Daily Routine And Your Circadian Rhythm

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Up to 50% reduced all-cause mortality by avoiding circadian rhythm disruption

Difficulty: Easy

We know that sleep is important, but good sleep is about far more than what time you go to bed and what time you wake up. Humans have circadian rhythms – natural 24 hour cycles that control various biological processes such as hormone release, eating habits, body temperature and of course sleep. Circadian rhythms are ultimately controlled by the brain, primarily in response to light/dark cycles. This allows the activity of cells throughout our bodies to be synchronised or ‘entrained’ to our environment. Among other things, this lets us mobilise energy to be active during the day, and ‘powers down’ the body in preparation for the vital process of sleep.

circadian rhythm
A conventional circadian rhythm. These times are not universal for everyone – the clock can be shifted backwards and forwards in response to environmental cues, mainly exposure to light. That’s why you don’t stay jetlagged forever!

Evidence suggests that it benefits us greatly to align our daily activities to our circadian rhythms so that we A: do not interfere with the circadian rhythm itself and B: don’t undertake activities that aren’t suited to the current phase of the circadian rhythm. Disrupted circadian rhythms have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative diseases and poor mental health. There are a multiple measures that you can take to preserve circadian entrainment:

  • Maximise your exposure to light, preferably sunlight, from the moment you wake up and throughout the morning and afternoon. At the very least, view 10-30 minutes of bright light within an hour of waking, and again in the afternoon.
  • Minimise your exposure to light, especially blue light, throughout the rest of the day.
  • Try to eat meals at similar times of day each day, and avoid eating within an hour or so of going to sleep.
  • Try to exercise at a similar time of day each day.

2: Increase Your Muscle Strength

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: 50-70% reduced risk of death compared with having low muscle strength

Difficulty: Moderate

There is a strong association between sarcopenia – the age related decline in muscle mass – and probability of death. However, evidence suggests that what matters most is not how much muscle you have, but rather how strong those muscles are. According to research in adults over the age of 50, you are around twice as likely to die from any cause if you have low muscle strength, even if your muscle mass is adequate. This evidence is covered in more detail here if you want to know more.

Relative all-cause mortality according to low muscle mass (LMM) assessed by appendicular lean mass (ALM) and low muscle strength (LMS) assessed by knee extension power.

When we are told to exercise more, most of us think initially of aerobic exercise. However, resistance training is equally valuable in other ways, providing increased muscle and bone strength where aerobic exercise improves cardiorespiratory fitness. The only reason muscle strength doesn’t receive first place on this list is that some people might find resistance training harder to fit into their day than aerobic exercise, and achieving large increases in muscle strength requires access to equipment.

1: Increase Your Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Evidence: Association in humans

Effect: Up to 70% reduced risk of death compered with having low cardiorespiratory fitness

Difficulty: Easy

If you put someone on a treadmill, then progressively increase the incline of the treadmill so that the exercise becomes increasingly hard, they will eventually reach a point at which they simply can’t exercise any harder. That’s because they have reached the limit of their cardiorespiratory fitness, which is the overall rate at which the body can extract oxygen from the air and then deliver it to exercising muscles. Cardiorespiratory fitness obviously has multiple components: how much oxygen reaches the alveoli in the lungs, the total surface area of the alveoli over which oxygen can enter the blood, how quickly the heart can deliver that blood to the muscles, and how quickly the muscles can utilise that oxygen.

Cardiorespiratory fitness is essential for maintaining good health because of the central importance of the circulatory system. All organs in the body require a constant supply of oxygen, and so the health of the respiratory and circulatory systems unsurprisingly influence the health of all other organs, especially the brain. Of course, cardiorespiratory fitness also protects against heart disease, which is the leading cause of death globally.

Studies suggest a strong association between cardiorespiratory fitness and reduced mortality. Data shows that if you are in the in the 50th percentile or higher in terms of cardiorespiratory fitness for your age (meaning that your maximum rate of oxygen use is higher than 50% of people your age), then you are less than half as likely to die from any cause when compared to someone below the 25th percentile. For more details on this study, take a look at this article.

Hazard ratio (the relative probability of death compared to a baseline risk, in this case the risk associated with being in the ‘low’ category) for each category of cardiorespiratory fitness: the bottom 25% of people were considered low fitness; the 25th to 50th percentile were below average; the 50th to 75th percentile were above average; the 75th to 95th percentile were high fitness; to top 5% were considered ‘elite’.

Cardiorespiratory fitness wins first place for showing strong associations with health and lifespan in humans, with a large effect size for relatively little work in the middle ranges of fitness. Just going from below average to above average cardiorespiratory fitness corresponds to a reduction in mortality roughly equivalent to quitting smoking. It’s also easy to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness without needing access to specialised equipment or facilities. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that aerobic exercise only increases cardiorespiratory fitness, while resistance training increases both muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness if done correctly. For this reason, there’s a good argument to be made that resistance training is the more effective option when it comes to improving health and longevity.

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    The effects of exercise and cold exposure on mitochondrial biogenesis in skeletal muscle and white adipose tissue:

    Control and regulation of the cellular responses to cold shock: the responses in yeast and mammalian systems:

    Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction:

    Micronutrients: Types, Functions, Benefits and More:

    Cognitive leisure activity and all-cause mortality in older adults: a 4-year community-based cohort:

    Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging:

    Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis:

    Intake of trans fat and all-cause mortality in the Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort:

    Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies:

    Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review:

    Effects of circadian disruption on cardiometabolic system:

    Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health:

    Sleep, circadian rhythms, and the pathogenesis of Alzheimer Disease:

    Association of Cardiorespiratory Fitness With Long-term Mortality Among Adults Undergoing Exercise Treadmill Testing:

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