The Office for National Statistics says that, of the children born in 2018, 13.6% of boys and 18.2% of girls can expect to live until the age of 100.
As the incredible efforts of Captain Tom Moore have shown us this summer, it’s possible to live a full and active life even if you’re 100 years old. But what are the secrets of living a long life?
In her new book Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, science journalist Marta Zaraska spoke to dozens of researchers and considered hundreds of academic papers to try and establish what centenarians have in common.
Considering that Zaraska says that ‘how long we live is only 20% to – 25% heritable’. What are the factors that could help you live to receive your telegram from the Queen?
This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but studies show that the longer you live, the higher the likelihood of staying in close to perfect shape.
Zaraska found that, while the average person will spend almost 18% of their lives struggling with disease, that proportion falls to 5% for people who live until the age of 100 or longer.
So, it’s not just staying healthy, but being healthy during your life that can be an indicator.
Surround yourself with people
Unhappy people generally don’t live as long as happy ones.
In her book, Zaraska contends that one of the most damaging forms of unhappiness is loneliness. This goes back to the early days of humans, where a feeling of loneliness signalled the sort of isolation that put early humans in danger of animal attack. Surrounding ourselves with people was an early strategy to protect ourselves.
While being alone in 2020 is unlikely to see us being mauled by a bear, it creates constant stress. This could lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with everything from cancer and rheumatoid arthritis to diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
The answer is to try and remain as social as you can. Surveys from the US, Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands say that extroverts tend to outlive introverts. One Dutch study claimed that each extra person in a network of regular interactions lowered the risk of dying within five years by 2%.
Even if you don’t have a wide circle of friends, taking care and looking after the close friends you have can reduce loneliness and therefore unhappiness.
Adopt the Mediterranean diet – but not for the reasons you might think
Over the years, much has been made of the longevity of people in the Mediterranean.
Zaraska says: “The average French person lives over four years longer than the average American – but don’t assume it’s all to do with the Mediterranean diet. The French do obsess about their eating – just about a very different aspect of it.”
Sticking to the Mediterranean diet – eating lots of fruit and vegetables and using olive oil in place of butter – may reduce your chance of premature death by 21%.
However, it’s the social aspect of eating dinner with family that could be the real benefit.
More than two-thirds of French people in their 30s and 40s eat dinner with their family, compared with 24% of Americans. Zaraska says: “Maybe, the life-prolonging aspect of the Mediterranean diet is not the amount of vegetables and olive oil it contains, but the way these foods are eaten: together with others.”
While sticking to the Mediterranean diet could cut your chances of premature death by a fifth, having a large network of friends will cut it by 45%. Having a happy marriage will pretty much halve it.
5 tips to prolong your life
If you want to live a long life, here are five simple tasks from Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
1. Don’t obsess about food
Zaraska says that it is healthier to make time for a cup of tea with a partner or friend than to spend hours sourcing the ingredients to create a perfect meal.
Being overweight will not, statistically, stop you living into old age, as long as your BMI does not stray into serious obesity. Additionally, the ‘obesity paradox’ highlighted in some studies means that people with a BMI of between 30 and 35 have a better chance of surviving a range of common diseases than those who are thinner.
2. Offer to help your neighbour move house
Helping other people, and interacting with them, boosts your sense of wellbeing, and your health.
It is most effective if it is local and involves direct personal contact, and if you can combine it with a bit of exercise, that’s perfect.
3. Focus on your friendships
A happy social life will not only make you feel more optimistic but, as we have seen, can reduce the negative health impact of loneliness.
It might be difficult right now to stay in touch, but it’s important to nurture your relationships if you can.
4. Look after your ikigai
Japan has long held one of the best longevity records. This has been partly attributed to the concept of ‘ikigai’, or ‘a reason for being’.
Ikigai means having a direction or purpose in life, and maintaining activities, hobbies or work that make your life worthwhile.
For example, many Japanese people have less desire to retire. They want to continue to do their favourite job as long as they remain healthy, as it gives their life meaning and purpose.
5. Be conscientious
Zaraska highlights the character trait of ‘conscientiousness’ as key to a long life as conscientious people are more likely to do things that are good for them.
“We invest so much money in expensive clinical trials that promise extravagant therapies to reverse ageing,” she says. “But maybe we should just do things that are already known to work, such as volunteering, making friends and learning optimism. If we invest more in being kind, mindful and conscientious, we are more likely to improve the conditions in which we all live.”
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