By Dr. Mercola
The search for "the fountain of youth" has a long history, from tracking down sacred, life-giving water sources in the days of antiquity, to the invention of "miracle pills" and stem cell research in the modern age, the fascination with extreme longevity is an enduring one.
One of the most recent studies1 on this topic investigated the blood of a woman who lived to be just over 115 years old. At her death, she only had two blood stem cells left, and stem cell exhaustion, the researchers believe, may explain why people eventually die at an advanced age despite being in good overall health.
How Blood Stem Cells May Affect Your Longevity
You are born with approximately 20,000 blood stem cells, which your body uses to replenish your blood. Over time, and depending on the "abuse" you put your body through, these cells become damaged and die. As your blood stem cells dwindle, your body becomes less efficient at repairing and regenerating itself.
In essence, your blood stem cells may be the proverbial "clock" that eventually runs out, no matter how well you take care of yourself. In the meantime, however, you have a great deal of control over how quickly those cells perish.
The woman also had hundreds of non-coding mutations in her white blood cells, leading the researchers to speculate that certain mutations may promote longevity.
Other recent research and accompanying editorial2 published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)3, 4 found that low-intensity daily exercise leads to less disability in old age and a longer, healthier life, which shouldn't come as any great surprise. There are a number of other factors though that also appear to be instrumental for longevity, and many people fail to give them the consideration they deserve.
Is Your Personality Geared for Longevity?
According to results from The Longevity Project,5 a Stanford study spanning 80 years, your level of conscientiousness may have a great deal to do with how long you end up living. Having a personality that strives to do things well; being thorough and vigilant—this is a trait that most of the people who live the longest share. As noted in the featured Time Magazine article:6
"'The qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree' are the qualities that help lead to a long life. 'Many of us assume that more relaxed people live longer, but it's not necessarily the case.'
Why? Conscientious behavior influences other behaviors. Conscientious people tend to make healthier choices, including who they marry, where they work, and the likelihood they'll smoke, drive too fast, or follow doctors' orders."
The Longevity Project also dismisses the idea that hard work will kill you early. On the contrary, those who stayed productive and worked hard all their lives tended to be happier, healthier, and more social compared to those who didn't work as hard.
That's not to dismiss work stress as a factor that needs to be addressed and kept in check. There's plenty of evidence showing that chronic stress (and even acute and severe stress) can take a tremendous toll on your health.
But being productive can also lend a sense of purpose, which is also important for longevity. And working—especially in your later years—tends to keep you socially connected, which has repeatedly been shown to be an important factor for longevity.
For example, Harvard professor of public policy Lisa Berkman cites social isolation as a significant factor for premature death.7 This may be, at least in part, because those who don't have good social networks may not be able to get assistance if they become ill.
The following compilation of news segments highlights several of the oft-ignored factors that tend to promote longevity, including having a sense of purpose in life, honoring family, and even having a strong religious faith.
What and When You Eat May Greatly Impact Your Longevity Potential
No discussion about longevity would be complete without addressing diet. A processed, high-sugar diet is undoubtedly the quickest route to an early death, barring a lethal accident. This is because consuming sugar and grains increases your insulin and leptin levels, which is the equivalent of slamming your foot on your aging accelerator.
Besides that, research by Professor Cynthia Kenyon shows that carbohydrates have a direct and detrimental effect on two key genes that govern longevity and youthfulness.
One of the primary mechanisms that make intermittent fasting so beneficial is in fact related to its impact on your insulin sensitivity. While sugar is a source of energy for your body, it also promotes insulin resistance when consumed in the amounts found in our modern processed food diets. Insulin resistance, in turn, is a primary driver of chronic disease—from premature aging to heart disease and cancer.
Mounting research confirms that when your body becomes accustomed to burning fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel—which is what happens when you intermittently fast—you dramatically reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Becoming fat adapted may even be a key strategy for both cancer prevention and treatment, as cancer cells cannot utilize fat for fuel—they need sugar to thrive. Fasting also improves mitochondrial energy efficiency, which also helps to slow down aging and disease processes.
Ideally, you'll want to replace all forms of processed and refined sugars and grains with healthy fats such as butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, grass-fed meats, and raw nuts. Many would benefit from getting as much as 50-85 percent of their daily calories from fats.
While this may sound like a lot, consider that, in terms of volume, the largest portion of your plate would be vegetables, since they contain so few calories. Fat, on the other hand, tends to be very high in calories. For example, just one tablespoon of coconut oil is about 130 calories—all of it from healthful fat.
Most people also eat far too much protein for optimal health. Consider reducing your protein levels to one gram per kilogram of lean body weight unless you are in competitive athletics or are pregnant. In pounds, this equates to less than half a gram per pound of lean body mass. The reason for this recommendation is because excessive protein intake (you do need some) can have a great impact on cancer growth, by way of your mTOR pathway (short for mammalian target of rapamycin).
This pathway is ancient but has only become the subject of scientific investigation in the last 20 years. Odds are very high your doctor was never taught this in medical school and isn't even aware of it. Many new cancer drugs are actually designed to target this pathway. Other drugs using this pathway have been shown to radically extend the lifespan in animals. You don't need a drug to make this pathway work for you, though. You can "biohack" your body by restricting your protein intake and, again, replacing the decreased protein with healthy fats.
Mindfulness and Perpetual Motion—Two Oft-Ignored 'Fountains of Youth'
There's compelling evidence suggesting that having a calm mind and active body are two important ingredients for longevity. The meditative technique known as "mindfulness" has even been shown to have a beneficial effect on genetic expression. According to the featured article, meditation has also been found to affect the enzyme telomerase, which some researchers believe is actively involved with the process of aging. As for keeping your body active, avoiding sitting is perhaps of even greater importance than having a regular workout regimen.
The science is very clear on this point: sitting too much is a surefire way to take years off your life! And that applies even if you exercise vigorously a few times a week. Basically what the research is telling us is that getting too hung up on a once-a-day exercise routine is to put the cart before the horse. FIRST, you need to make sure you're engaging in more or less perpetual non-exercise movement, as this is an independent risk factor for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
You then want to add structured exercise on top of that to reap all the benefits associated with exercise. High-intensity interval training boosts human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is essential for optimal health, strength, and vigor. I've discussed the importance of Peak Fitness for your health on numerous occasions. To counteract the ill effects of sitting in my own life, I've taken to setting a timer for 15 minutes while sitting, and then stand up and do one legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise, or as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.
To keep track of the 15 minutes, I use an XNote timer that can be downloaded for free. Rather than having an annoying alarm that might aggravate you more than anything, it simply flashes a light on your screen to remind you it's time to stand up and move. To learn more about the ins and outs about why sitting is so detrimental to your health, and what to do about it, please see my previous interview with Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division, and author of the book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals.
Being a Perpetual Student May Be One of the Most Important Secrets to a Longer Life
Education is also strongly correlated with a longer life. I personally believe it's crucial to be a perpetual student, no matter how old you get. If you think you know it all just because you went to high school or college, you might as well pack it up. It's all downhill from there. My perspective is to be a lifelong student. If I lived for several hundred years, I don't think there is enough time to learn all the topics I would like to. That said, merely getting an education can have a great impact, and perhaps it's because it teaches you to be a student. As noted in the featured article:
"A 2012 report from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics found that people with a bachelor's degree or higher live about nine years longer than people who don't graduate high school. James Smith, a health economist at the RAND Corporation, is also an proponent of the argument for staying in school for better life expectancy. His findings show education may be an even bigger factor than race and income. Educated people are more likely to land better jobs, plan for their future, and make healthier lifestyle choices."
Lifestyle Choices Today That Can Multiply Your Tomorrows
The takeaway message here is that you have a great deal of control over your life expectancy, based on the personal choices you make—from how you think to how you move, and what you choose to eat—and when. For a comprehensive food guide, see my free nutrition plan, which also addresses intermittent fasting.
Naturally, there's also the issue of toxic exposures, which can take a toll on your health, so avoiding toxins is a given, right along with eating a wholesome diet of organic, unprocessed foods. This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
Another issue not addressed above, but which bears mentioning, is the importance of sleeping well, and getting enough of it. In a 22-year twin study,8 adults who slept more than eight hours per night, or less than seven, showed increased risk of death. Of course, the quality of your sleep is also important, not just the quantity. Optimizing your vitamin D levels through appropriate sun exposure and avoiding prescription drugs will also go a long way toward warding off an untimely death.
In the end, there is no quick fix when it comes to longevity. There is no magic pill and no fountain of youth. This makes it all the more important to find a physician who is well versed in the basic principles of a healthy lifestyle, as loading up on prescription medications will likely kill you sooner rather than later. Although some people seem to be blessed with longevity in spite of their lifestyle choices, this is the exception and not the rule. For most of us, becoming healthy Centenarians will require some effort and attention to the factors discussed above.