For many of us, the prospect of living to 100 isn’t that appealing because we generally associate old age with poor quality of life. But what if you could live longer and still enjoy the benefits of youth? Would that make you want to live to 100?
Well, there is a way to achieve this, so that you can live longer and disease-free, extending both your lifespan and your healthspan. Mark Hyman explores aspects of the five pillars of longevity – strategies you can adopt without needing any specialist advice or equipment. Learn what you can do to support your body, so you can enjoy life for as long as possible.
Slow down the aging process.
The mountain villages of Sardinia are home to the longest-living people in the world. At 80, they’re fitter than the average 40-year-old American, still live independently, tend their goats, sheep, and gardens, and actively participate in their community. They not only have a long lifespan, they enjoy an extended healthspan – meaning they’re healthy until the very end of their lives and die peacefully and without pain.
By contrast, the average 80-year-old elsewhere in the world suffers from five different diseases. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that most people spend their final 16 years suffering from disease. That equates to one-fifth of their lifespans.
The diseases and conditions of aging occur when your body’s inbuilt healing programs aren’t activated. This stops your body from sufficiently regenerating itself to replace all the molecules and cells that have naturally run their course. This leads to your body’s degradation over time.
Unfortunately, many of us have diets and lifestyles that accelerate this degradation process. But instead of supporting our bodies in the right way to treat aging at its root cause, we try to manage the symptoms of the diseases we’re experiencing with medication. This might make us feel more comfortable but it won’t extend our health- or lifespans.
So, what actually happens to your body when you age?
Biological aging impacts every single one of your body’s systems. For instance, the signaling mechanisms that control your hormones and metabolism get disrupted; the quality of your DNA deteriorates, leading to cell mutations and damaged proteins; you become fatigued due to a decline in your mitochondria – the part of your cells that produce energy; and your stem cells become exhausted, which makes it difficult for your body to rejuvenate itself.
But why aren’t these processes happening to the vibrant centenarians in Sardinia? Well, their lifestyle and diet naturally balance all the body’s biological networks, which extends their healthspan and lifespan. You can do this too by embracing behavioral changes that support the five core pillars of longevity. Let’s take a look at each pillar in turn, focusing on changes you can incorporate into your lifestyle without needing the guidance of a health-care professional.
Nutrition is the foundation of longevity.
You’ve probably heard the saying “you are what you eat” and of course, everyone knows that good nutrition is the basis of healthy living. But in many communities, diet doesn’t support healthspans or lifespans. That’s why optimizing your nutrition is the first pillar of longevity.
Stressful lifestyles and the accessibility of food with low nutritional value cause many people in the industrialized world to make decisions that are literally shortening their lives. For example, 93 percent of Americans are metabolically unhealthy and have – or are at risk of developing – type 2 diabetes. In fact, your risk of death for your age increases by 14 percent for every tenth of your diet that’s processed foods.
The key to eating for longevity is a diverse diet of unprocessed foods that are predominantly plant-based. If you’re eating quality foods, you’ll find you won’t need to eat as much because nutrient-rich food gives you all the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and fat you need.
A diverse diet is crucial because no single food can support all of your body’s complex systems. And equally important, no single food can support your gut microbiome.
Your gut microbiome is a community of microorganisms that live in your digestive system and carry out important functions like metabolizing what you eat, supporting your immune system, and protecting you from dangerous pathogens. Some of these little wonders do amazing things – like Akkermansia muciniphila, which prevents leaky gut and helps immunotherapy work in cancer patients. When you eat, you’re not just eating for yourself, you’re eating for your gut microbiome.
The problem is that your microbiome isn’t just made of helpful microbes that help keep you healthy. It also has some unhelpful ones that can cause inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions that shorten your lifespan. And what determines the balance of helpful and harmful gut microbes is what you eat.
Feeding your helpful microbes is a solid way to improve your health and extend your lifespan. Their preferred diet is fiber, colorful vegetables, beans, wholegrains, fruit, and nuts. They also love fermented foods. Steer clear of sugar, starch, and refined oils, and limit dairy. That way, you’ll keep your harmful gut microbes in check, so the helpful ones – and you – can flourish.
Optimize your workouts to extend your life.
Imagine if there was something simple and free you could do for just 30 minutes a day to extend your lifespan by years. Well, there is – walking! Even just the act of moving intentionally each day has a positive impact on your lifespan. And when combined with healthy eating, exercise is a powerful strategy for longevity, making it the second pillar.
Exercise helps address all the root causes of aging – it keeps your bones and muscles strong, improves your cognitive function, and reduces the risk of disease.
But exercise does much more than you might realize. It unlocks the body’s regeneration and repair systems; balances your hormones – including sex hormones and libido; stimulates your circulatory and lymphatic systems – which are your built-in detox systems; and also supports the health of your helpful gut microbes.
All exercise is beneficial when it comes to living your longest, best life. So, if you belong to the 77 percent of Americans that don’t get at least two hours of exercise a week, committing to a daily walk is a great first step. But even if you’re fitness-focused, there are three ways that you can optimize your workouts as part of a longevity strategy, so that you can retain your mobility and strength like those mountain-dwelling Sardinians.
First, build up your workout routine to include 30 minutes of aerobic conditioning, at least three times a week. High-intensity training – like jogging, tennis, dancing, or rowing – stimulates your lymphatic system, which removes all the waste from your body that your cells make, and helps transport white blood cells around your body to fight disease.
Second, mitigate the fragility associated with old age with strength and muscle mass training. As you age, your body loses muscle mass, so if you want to enjoy quality of life in old age, you need to preserve and optimize your muscle tissue. Unfortunately, other types of exercise and sport aren’t enough to achieve this. To build muscle mass, you need to add strength training to your fitness program. Build up to three 30-minute strength training sessions a week, using resistance bands or lifting weights. If you’ve never done this type of exercise before, work with a trainer initially, so you can learn safely.
Finally, stay limber by tending to your agility and flexibility. Yoga is the best way to ensure you don’t end up like a rusted old machine. As well as giving you ease of movement, yoga comes with a heap of other benefits that support longevity when combined with breathing and meditation practices, like reducing inflammation, improving memory and neural connections, and supporting cellular health against aging. And if you’re up for hot yoga, you’ll get the added bonus of aerobic conditioning too!
Win back years by managing stress.
While a little bit of stress and pressure can sometimes be beneficial, most of us innately know that stress is harmful. After all, burnout is rampant in many communities.
Being exposed to stress consistently and then neglecting our self-care impacts us on a cellular level in a way that accelerates us toward the grave. That’s why stress management is the third pillar of longevity. Let’s dive into this a little more deeply.
You might know that all your cells contain chromosomes – the structures that house your DNA. Chromosomes themselves are thread-like, and their ends have a protective cap called a telomere, which is like the plastic tip on a shoelace.
As you age, your telomeres begin to shorten, causing your DNA to unravel, which leads to your eventual death. But age isn’t the only thing that causes telomeres to shrink – chronic stress does too.
This is why stress management is absolutely essential if you want to live longer, and with a high quality of life. Luckily, there are many practices you can adopt which are free and mitigate the impact of chronic stress at a cellular level.
A fitness plan optimized for longevity will automatically help you manage stress. But something as simple as breathing practices can be beneficial too. The “Take 5” method is an easy way to start. Simply take five deep, slow breaths when you wake up, before you go to bed, and before each meal.
Building a meditation practice is a fantastic way to reset your nervous system. Committing to just ten minutes a day will support your long-term health. Just think of how many extra healthy years you might gain from enjoying regular guided meditation.
Journaling about your emotions is also extremely useful when it comes to stress management. This is a way to exorcise all those pent-up emotions so they’re not causing havoc with your body’s systems. And journaling each day has been proven to reduce inflammation, so even if you don’t see yourself as the journalling type, it’s worthwhile giving it a go.
Quality sleep equals more life.
Thanks to the technological advances that brought lightbulbs into our homes and smartphones into our hands, the average amount of sleep a person gets each night has reduced by one-to-two hours over the past century or so. In fact, 70 million Americans don’t get enough sleep. That’s 70 million people who are operating with an impaired ability to concentrate, learn, and drive safely – all because they need a bit more shut-eye.
But that’s not the worst of it. Getting less than seven hours of sleep is linked to issues with the body’s cardiovascular, immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. Other side effects include an increased risk of dementia, stroke, and diabetes.
And that’s not even where it ends. When you’re asleep, your body is in restore mode, cleaning up the metabolic waste that your cells make each day. Sleep allows your organs, brain, and tissues to repair, and it balances your hormones. If you don’t get at least seven hours sleep, you’re increasing your risk of death for your age by 24 percent. That’s why sleep is the fourth pillar of longevity.
There are lots of things you can do to optimize your sleep and you’ve probably heard many of them before. But let’s look at a few that might be less familiar, so your body can get on with its important night work.
This first one is fairly radical: turn off your Wi-Fi at night. According to the author, electromagnetic frequencies can impair sleep, so the best thing you can do is pull the plug on your modem before bed. If you’re practicing good sleep hygiene by removing all your devices from your bedroom then you don’t need your Wi-Fi enabled anyway. Sad that’ll mean you can’t watch your smart TV in bed? Well, best sleep practices suggest that your bed should only be used for two things: sleep and sex. So, if you want to watch TV or read before you go to sleep, do it in another room.
If you find it difficult to fall asleep, try binaural beats sound meditation. This type of beat synchronizes with brain waves to support deep sleep. You can use it before you go to bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night. Just make sure you’re accessing it in a way that doesn’t mean you need your phone in your room, or the Wi-Fi on.
Finally, raise your core temperature by warming your middle with a hot water bottle or a heat pad. Not only is this soothing but it helps trigger the right chemistry for sleep, so you can get the solid seven hours you need for longevity.
Live longer with purpose.
Remember those mountain-dwelling Sardinians from earlier? Well, their lifestyle is wildly different from the average city or suburban denizen. Many of us feel constantly under pressure. Between work, family life, and social activities, we’re constantly on the go. But at the same time, most of us feel disconnected and overwhelmed, confused about how to bring meaning to our lives – and how we’d ever find the time to follow that path anyway.
But our Sardinian friends aren’t hounded by such thoughts. Despite the demands of tending to their flocks and gardens, they have an abundance of time for each other and their community. Each day, they spend several hours with their family and friends – a time for offering and receiving connection, support, and love. They’re invested in each other’s lives and that gives them a sense of purpose.
This may seem like an indulgent way to spend a decent chunk of your time, but having a sense of purpose within a community is linked to life expectancy. People who experience purpose live around seven years longer than those who don’t. That’s why living with purpose is the fifth pillar of longevity.
Practicing altruism and helping others is a wonderful way to feel a sense of purpose, and it has the added bonus of connecting you to the community. When you help others you get a hardcore hit of dopamine – the hormone that makes you feel pleasure and motivates you to keep helping. Your body is literally encouraging you to support others but not just for their benefit – for yours as well.
So, in the pursuit of a longer, healthier life, identify a cause you feel passionate about and find a way to contribute. Volunteer at your local food bank, walk the dogs at your local animal shelter, raise money to support communities displaced by conflict. Even small acts of random kindness can help you on the journey to living a longer, healthier life.