Longevity has been a very fascinating topic for me and I’ve always been curious about the habits of centenarians. I’ve always believed you can live until you’re hundred and stay young by simply making small changes to your lifestyle. Here I talk about the one habit that research says might help us (and most other species) live longer while staying healthy as we get older.
As part of my 66 Day Change Your Year Challenge, I want to share the posts and ideas that have been on my mind for a long time (we’re talking years), but I never found time or courage to put them out into the world. This post is definitely one of them.
Why do some people live longer than others?
Let’s start with a question that makes us feel like life’s pretty unfair.
Why do some people live longer than others? Why are some people healthier even though they smoke a pack a day and don’t give a crap about what they eat?
In that case, it’s probably genetics. Boo hoo, life’s unfair and some people are lucky like that.
Good news is, even if we’re not among those lucky superheroes we still have a shot at living a long healthy life. And the last thing we need to do is say yolo and burry ourselves in burgers and cigarettes to slowly start dying while we’re still alive.
See, longevity depends on your genes, but also the environment these genes are cultivated in. Genes are just information. Information that is thousands of years old and has been passed to you. Now, do something with it.
Side note: I did one of those genetic tests 2 years ago and it turned out I had genes that were 40.000 years old in me – some of the oldest in the world. Which I found really cool.
As we all know, all information in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you do nothing with it. For example, everyone knows what to do to lose weight – eat healthy, exercise and don’t obsess. It’s not a secret and yet, many people struggle with that. At the moment I’m one of them. So information doesn’t mean a thing if it’s not used.
Same with genes. Many of our genes are asleep while others are active and controlling the way we live our lives. Genes can be expressed or not, depending on what you put them through. You might not have that much control, but you have some.
Here is what the authors of this review on longevity research write:
…a few subjects can attain longevity because a lucky combination of polymorphisms which allow them to have an efficient metabolism or an efficient response to different stress. Most of the others can attain a similar result by targeting the same pathways with appropriate lifestyle or interventions.
Basically, yes there are people who have really won the genetic lottery and have efficient metabolism and efficient response to stress that helps them survive, even if they don’t put a lot of effort.
HOWEVER, us mortals, can achieve similar results by changing our lifestyles and by doing the right interventions. This way we can activate the same molecular pathways in the body that are responsible for the longevity in those “super heroes” who never seem to age and live longer. Everything you do is not without a meaning – it matters. So, yes, you still have a chance to live long, even if you’re not one of “the chosen ones”. And if you are – a healthy lifestyle could help you do even better and preserve health longer.
The one dietary habit that might delay aging and extend life
One of the most reliable anti-aging habits that could lead to longevity is that of caloric restriction.
Caloric restriction has been proven to delay aging and prolong life in countless studies, for many different organisms. Here’s how powerful it is for different species according to this article:
In budding yeast, fruit flies and worms, CR (caloric restriction) can extend lifespan dramatically (2–3 fold). A 20 to 50% reduction in caloric intake, without malnutrition, in some strains of rats and mice prolongs median and maximal lifespan up to 50%, and prevents or delays the onset of many chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, nephropathy, cardiomyopathy, neurodegeneration and multiple autoimmune diseases.
I know, different organisms – we’re human, not fruit flies. I get that. But isn’t it mind-blowing how you can make such a huge difference with one tiny change? By eating a little less while getting enough nutrients from your diet. That’s impressive even for a rat.
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Health Benefits of Caloric Restriction
It’s not just about living longer. According to this article caloric restriction:
- protects against arthritis
- preserves cognition
- delays osteoporosis
- protects against cardiovascular disease
- prevents age-related diabetes
- lowers incidence and progression of cancer
- delays brain atrophy
- protects colon health
As for humans
For us humans, there’s also hope. While there aren’t as many studies on caloric restriction in humans, there’s some data that shows this simple dietary change triggers similar adaptations in the body as it does in the longevity animal models.
These adaptations can be protective against type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer (basically the leading causes of mortality and morbidity today). (source)
Also, while we don’t have many “studies” on humans, we have history. I found some very interesting examples in a review titled Calorie restriction in humans: an update (you can find the full review here) and I want to share a few excerpts from the article:
Example #1: Denmark, World War 1
During World War 1 in 1917, Danish men and women were forced to reduce food consumption for 2 years, but with a well-planned and adequate consumption of whole grain cereals, vegetables, and milk. The result of this undesired experiment was an impressive 34% reduction in death rates.
Example #2: Norway, World War 2
Similarly, in Norway during World War 2, the citizens of Oslo underwent a forced 20% CR (caloric restriction) without malnutrition (i.e. Norwegians were provided with adequate intake of fresh vegetables, potatoes, fish and whole cereals) for approximately 4 years (1941–45). In this forced experiment, mortality dropped by 30% compared to the pre-war level in both men and women.
Example #3: The Centenarians of Okinawa
Another natural CR (caloric restriction) experiment took place in Okinawa, a beautiful island located 640 kilometers south of mainland Japan. On this island, an estimated 50 in every 100,000 people were 100 years of age or older; this is approximately 4–5 times higher than the number of centenarians residing in any other industrialized country. All-cause mortality at age 60–64 for people living on Okinawa was half of that of other Japanese for the year 1995, and the mortality from ischemic heart disease and cancer (i.e. prostate, colon, breast, and lymphoma) was markedly lower than in the average mainland Japanese and US population. In the same year, both the average and maximum lifespan of people living on Okinawa (average 83.8 years, maximum: 104.9 years) was higher compared to Japanese living on mainland Japan (82.3 years, 101.1 years), and Americans residing in the USA (78.9 years, 101.3 years).
Studies investigating the dietary intake of adults living on Okinawa suggest that Okinawans’ consumed approximately 17% fewer calories than the average adult in Japan, and 40% less than the average adult in the United States. Importantly, the lower energy intake was not (exclusively) explained by overeating (energy intake exceeding energy requirements) in the latter populations. For Okinawans, a 10–15% deficit in energy intake was estimated according to the Harris-Benedict-equation of the energy requirements. The Okinawan diet is also reported to be lower in protein (9% of calories) and rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, sweet potatoes, soy and fish.
But how does it work?
The thing I found truly fascinating about caloric restriction is the theory of how this life-extension thing actually happens. You eat a little less and you live a lot more? HOW?
Turns out there are many ways caloric restriction can delay aging and help us live longer.
- improves the cell’s ability to repair DNA damage
- induces anti-stress proteins
- improves efficiency of glucose metabolism
- slows decline of the immune system that happens naturally as we get older
- reduces oxidative stress (that also naturally increases as we get older)
- modulates the neuroendocrine system
It’s been demonstrated that caloric restriction in animals not only helps them live longer, but also activates a different set of genes that is related to longevity. (source: Human longevity: Genetics or Lifestyle? It takes two to tango)
Calorie restricted animals also have lower levels of inflammation in the body, reduced glucose and insulin in the blood and improved insulin sensitivity – all factors that reduce the risk of chronic disease also in humans. (source: Brain Response to Caloric Restriction)
It’s not about eating less.
We’re always told we need to eat. What we need to eat, that we need to eat enough, throughout the day and specifically that we need to get more protein. Some people would even tell you you’ve got an eating disorder if you’re not eating “enough” for their standards.
Well, caloric restriction is not about that.
In the introduction of this article about the brain response to caloric restriction the authors write:
Solid experimental evidence demonstrates that reducing the calorie intake of an organism by 20–40 % (maintaining an adequate intake of vitamins and essential elements) has the effect of extending maximal lifespan and ameliorating “healthspan” (i.e., the period of life free of chronic diseases).
This statement basically says it all. This isn’t about not eating, starving or fasting. It’s more about eating a little less calories, but getting more nutrients from your diet. This can then not only prolong your life, but also help you remain healthy for the most part of your life (that’s the healthspan).
So remember how the Okinawians ate 10-15% less than their energy requirements according to the Harris-Benedict-equation? Good. Well, I calculated my needs and it turns out: I’d need 1840 kcal a day.
If I reduce my caloric intake by 15% I’d still be able to eat 1564kcal.
Which honestly, isn’t it more than enough?
I can have 3×500 kcal meals and a very small snack. That’s plenty.
What’s important to note here – is this: eat less, but maintain an adequate intake of vitamins and essential elements. Not from supplements, but from food. And what’s the best food to do that? Simple: whole, nutrient-dense foods, not just protein or eating 1000kcal a day. Eating real food and not eating all the time.
What are nutrient-dense foods?
Those should be the main part of that healthy diet. Then come legumes, whole grains, fish, eggs.
Eat less, live more.
Important Disclaimer here: Of course caloric restriction would work only after we’ve reached a certain age and aren’t still growing. I wouldn’t reduce the calories of a baby, because I want it to live longer… But if you’ve stopped growing physically, you might want to consider trying this anti-aging habit.