Secrets to living a longer, healthier life

What’s the secret to staying young? Here’s what research is suggesting

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yoga meditation relax

What research shows about aging

For more than 80 years, researchers have also been collecting data for The Longevity Project, which examines the lifestyles and behaviours of 1,500 people in San Francisco who were selected to participate in 1921-when most of them were 10 years old. Some of the results have turned conventional wisdom on its head, says lead investigator Howard Friedman, psychology professor at the University of California in Riverside, who analyzed the data and published the results with co-author Leslie R. Martin in the 2011 book The Longevity Project. For instance, we’ve long been told that married people live longer, healthier lives than singles. But Friedman says, “In our studies, women who got divorced or stayed single often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well.” The key may be in social connections, which are vital to physical and mental health and which women tend to seek out and maintain; divorced men often lose these connections and are at high risk for premature mortality, Friedman says.

The study also poked holes in our society’s apparent longing for early retirement and a leisurely life. In fact, a demanding job-including a certain amount of adversity-appears to offer benefits. “The Longevity Project discovered that those who worked the hardest lived the longest,” Friedman says. “The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”

The researchers also found, to their surprise, that a perennially optimistic attitude was not the ticket to a long and healthy life. “Being too cheerful was not helpful and was sometimes even harmful,” Friedman says. “Our breakthrough finding was that conscientious children and adults stay healthier and live significantly longer.” Why? Unlike the carefree, who think nothing bad will happen to them, worried people don’t take their health for granted. They’re less likely to engage in risky activities like smoking, binge drinking, doing drugs or driving a car without wearing a seat belt. They’re more likely to watch what they eat, follow doctors’ advice, get enough sleep, and have more success in marriage, friendships and jobs.

Drawing on global research, here are more ways to help you stay healthy for as long as possible:

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fresh air woman

Eliminate exposure to cigarette smoke

Cigarette smoke causes oxidative stress that may prematurely age the reproductive system. In a 2013 study, McMaster University researchers found that female mice exposed to cigarette smoke for eight weeks suffered cell damage that led to ovarian follicle death, causing lower fertility and premature ovarian failure.

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Nutrition: Strawberries good for red blood cells

Maintain a healthy weight

It’s a crucial part of anti-aging, says Toronto-based registered dietitian Leslie Beck, who reviewed dozens of studies to write the 2010 book Leslie Beck’s Longevity Diet: The Power of Food to Slow Aging and Maintain Optimal Health and Energy. “Weight gain during adulthood-especially abdominal weight gain-can have adverse effects on health and life expectancy,” says Beck, citing the connection between belly fat, inflammation and chronic disease. She recommends increasing anti-inflammatory foods such as fruit, vegetables and oily fish, and limiting pro-inflammatory foods such as meat, processed foods and refined sugars.

Beck’s top five anti-aging foods: berries for their antioxidants; cruciferous vegetables for their ability to help the liver break down and excrete toxins; kale for its vitamin K, potassium and lutein that help maintain healthy bones and vision, and keep blood pressure in check; black beans for their slow-digesting plant protein, fibre and high antioxidants; and green tea, full of flavonoids that may protect against heart disease and certain cancers.

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Be physically active

Exercise can help to stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “People don’t realize physical activity is as important for the brain as for the heart,” says Dr. Sandra Black, director of the Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. Aerobic activity increases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the health of nerve cells in areas of the brain linked to memory, learning and higher-level thinking. “BDNF seems to be involved in brain repair, including in the hippocampus, the area that’s implicated in Alzheimer’s,” Black says. In a 2010 study, women who exercised in their teens were much less likely to have cognitive problems 60 years later.

Overweight and obese people, even if they don’t lose weight, can add years to their lives by increasing their activity even slightly. Pooling data from more than 650,000 Europeans and North Americans, a research team led by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. found in 2012 that people who did the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, such as brisk walking, gained an average 3.4 years of life compared to those who did no activity. Those who did twice the recommended activity, but were still overweight or obese, added 4.2 years. “It surprised us that even if you did 75 minutes a week-half the recommended amount-you still gained 1.8 years of life,” says I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and senior author on the study. “And it didn’t matter how heavy you were; you still lived longer than people of the same weight who didn’t exercise.”

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Do strength training

It is a crucial part of anti-aging, as it builds bone and helps maintain functional abilities. And a little goes a long way. Instead of doing three sets of every exercise, a single set is enough to make a big difference, says Don Paterson, research director of the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging at Western University in London, Ont. “Find a weight heavy enough that you can lift it only 10 or 12 times,” says Paterson, who reviewed the latest research from around the world to help develop Canada’s new physical activity guidelines in 2011. “One set, done two or three times a week, is fine.”

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