Given the constant advances in science, medicine, and technology, you’d think the average life expectancy in the United States would increase every year, right? Wrong. According to reports released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late 2018, American life expectancy has declined, continuing a disturbing multi-year trend.
The (relatively) good news about these numbers is that they can be partially attributed to preventable causes of death like suicide and tobacco-related respiratory diseases. While this may not seem like a positive thing, it’s a reminder that you can choose to avoid harmful, life-shortening behaviors and instead take steps to protect your health and promote longevity. Here are three research-proven ways to increase life expectancy.
Live With Purpose
This is a big one for me—so big that I gave a TED Talk about it. I’m a passionate believer in the power of people to change, and science supports this belief. In fact, research shows that having a sense of purpose can literally add years to your life.
An analysis of ten studies that followed over 135,000 people for about seven years found those who reported a feeling of higher purpose in life lowered their risk of death during the study period by approximately 20 percent. The analysis also found participants who said their lives were meaningful had less chance of developing heart disease.
Although it’s not clear exactly how a sense of purpose can lengthen life, the authors of this particular study think it might protect the body from potentially harmful stress responses as well as encourage a generally healthier lifestyle. And while the study shows an association rather than a cause and effect relationship, its implication—that knowing what you want out of life and having a plan to get it can impact lifespan—is significant.
Eat This, Not That
You probably know there are certain foods you shouldn’t overeat if you want to have a long, healthy life. But there are also many dietary choices that have been shown to have a positive impact on health rather than a negative one. For example, research in the field of epigenetics, which looks at how chemical and environmental factors impact our genetic health, has shown that dietary changes can lower your risk of heart disease even if it runs in your family. One study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene.
Another dietary choice that has been associated with better health is switching to a plant-based diet. In one study, researchers looked at former vegetarians to determine how eating and/or avoiding certain foods affected their cardiovascular health. They found that, among lapsed vegetarians who started eating meat, the odds of developing heart disease increased by 146 percent. They also experienced a 152 percent increase in stroke risk and a 231 percent increase in odds for weight gain. Transitioning from vegetarianism to meat-eating over the course of 12 years was associated with a decrease in life expectancy of 3.6 years. To learn more about the benefits of a plant-based diet, see my post here.
Remember when you were younger and it seemed like all you did was hang out with friends? And then you got older and busier, and many of those relationships gradually faded away. Although it can be hard to find time to socialize, staying connected is crucial for a long life. Research has shown that loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes, and a 2018 study conducted at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark found that loneliness may double a person’s risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
As difficult as it may be, try to make time to socialize on a regular basis. Take your spouse out for a nice dinner, meet some friends for a beer, or go for a jog with a workout buddy. You may increase your life expectancy in the process.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.