Will you dance at your great-grandchild’s wedding?
Some people are not only dancing, but cooking, driving, and volunteering at an age when they’re supposed to be feeble, addled by dementia, or both. Researchers, with an eye to an ever-aging population, are trying to figure out why.
Scientists are studying “super agers” — 90-somethings who are living without significant physical or memory problems — to zero in on the kinds of healthy habits that may keep us all living longer and better.
With life expectancy on the rise — the 85-plus population is expected to triple to 14.6 million by 2040 — researchers want to figure out how we can increase our health span, or the amount of time we’ll live in good health.
Some people win the genetic lottery and will naturally live better longer. But experts say our genes only account for about 20%-30% of our longevity. That means we can affect the majority of our aging — about 70%-80% — through lifestyle.
So exactly which habits matter the most?
While there’s no blueprint, studies can offer some clues. It’s no surprise that eating healthy and exercise are likely to have a role in how well we age. But they are far from the only things involved, and they may not even be the most important ones.
Here is what researchers have already found.
Lessons From the ‘Blue Zones’
Author Dan Buettner has researched people who live to be 100+ since 2000. He worked with National Geographic to identify five “Blue Zones” that have the highest percentage of the world’s longest-lived people. People in these zones also lived relatively free of diseases common to aging, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The Blue Zones are a few: the Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Here’s what they had in common:
- A plant-based diet — beans, whole grains, veggies
- Opportunities for natural movement, like walking, herding, and gardening
- Having a sense of purpose
- Belonging to a faith-based community
- Taking a daily nap or finding some other way to “downshift” daily
- Not overeating and not eating after sunset
The researcher lectures widely about the importance of food, movement, prayer, and purpose — and has spun off his findings into several books and the Blue Zones Project. Because few people are going to adopt herding anytime soon, the project aims to find ways to make communities healthier.
- Read more: The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest
Antioxidants and Aging
Free radicals are molecules that can damage healthy cells. They can make you more likely to get certain diseases, like cancer, and speed up aging. Foods rich in antioxidants can help fight those molecules. Colorful vegetables and fruits are packed with them, so aim for five to nine servings of those each day.
Many communities worldwide have since adopted its principles, transforming public spaces — parks, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants — to encourage healthy eating and more social interaction. Some are creating new bike and walking paths. Schools may prohibit students from eating anywhere but in the cafeteria. And no-smoking policies are making it harder to light up.
People engaged in such efforts want to give healthy options, so it’s not forced on others to make the healthy choice the easy choice. That leads to longevity and social connectedness. They aim to measure progress through reduced obesity and smoking rates, how much produce people eat, and how much time they spend exercising.
Keeping Your Brain Sharp
A plant-based diet and exercise may stave off disease to keep us physically healthy. Can they also keep us mentally healthy? The single biggest cause of Alzheimer’s disease is aging, and rates of dementia rise sharply ages 85 and up.
When it comes to memory and thinking, studies suggest that exercise is one of the best ways to keep our minds sharp. Exercise builds brain cells.
The MIND Diet
This is a combination of two diets that have well-known health benefits — Mediterranean and DASH. It’s designed to prevent or slow brain decline. Early studies show that it lowers risk of Alzheimer’s by 53% in those who follow it closely and by 35% in those who follow more loosely. (The name is short for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.)
People who walk more than 72 blocks per week have better brain volumes, and if you follow these people over time, the risk of dementia decreases. It’s relatively cheap, and it helps for general health and cognitive health. Plus, people often walk with others and may have lunch that includes a glass of wine. If they order fish, all the better for boosting gray matter.
Alzheimer’s researchers are also looking at how lifestyle — exercise and diet – affects brain health among the “oldest old.” They have found a connection between a healthy heart and a lower chance of having dementia. Their subjects also had at least one thing in common with the peole in the five Blue Zones: They attended religious services each week. They also:
- Drank at least 1-2 cups of coffee daily
- Had a reading habit
- Took part in physical and nonphysical leisure activities
- Had an alcoholic drink or two each day
The connection between lifestyle and brain health may not be so direct. For example, the socializing that goes along with an afternoon tea may be more important to mental alertness than the drink you’re drinking.
Researchers are also trying to sort out why some people who have genes that raise the odds of having Alzheimer’s don’t develop the disease. Other people have plaques and tangles in their brains often found with the disease yet have no problems with memory.
Researchers suggest a healthy diet and physical activity may create “resilience” in people who might have the genetic potential to develop Alzheimer’s, but don’t.
But diet is hard to study. Of all the factors, education seems to be the strongest one for maintaining brain health.
“The higher your education level, the likelier you are to maintain normal cognition in the face of Alzheimer’s disease pathology,” says Kawas, a neurobiology professor at UCI’s School of Medicine. “That’s an environmental thing. Diet and exercise could be one of them, but they’re not the whole story.”
- Read more: The MIND Diet: A Scientific Approach to Enhancing Brain Function and Helping Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Nature vs. Environment
Some people are genetically predisposed to age later, no matter what or how much they eat. Even with lifestyle taken into account, their genes outweighed bad habits. They have less heart disease, less cognitive decline, less Alzheimer’s disease.
People with longevity in their family have protective genes that keep old-age illnesses — heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes — at bay for 20 to 30 years longer than the average person.
If you have protective genes, perhaps they will protect you from negative effects of the environment. But most of us don’t have those protective genes, so it’s important to exercise.
Life expectancy has risen nearly 30 years over the last century led by medical and technological advances, even basic ones like good sewage and water treatment systems. An 80-year-old today has less of a chance of developing Alzheimer’s than one did 30 years ago. Because doctors understand how to manage high blood pressure, the risk of stroke has also declined.
Yet, whatever insights science and sociology have provided about longevity, nobody owns the recipe for putting off mortality a bit longer.
What is the researchers’ advice for pushing the mortality envelope? The evidence shows that eating a plant-based diet and staying on your feet are important. But so are engaging in activities that keep the mind sharp.
“Do what your mother told you to do: Get exercise, use your brain, limit stress, get rest, and be nice to people.”
- Read more: People Get Nicer as They Age