You’re definitely going to die. That’s the bad news, and there’s no question about it.
The question is around how and when. And the good news is that it’s something that you have a pretty good chance of controlling.
Before you shuffle off this mortal coil, you’ll statistically (and indeed, hopefully) get old. Old age seems to have a way of making its presence known as things start to slow down and the loss of energy and cognitive ability, an increase in frailty and risk of disease draw close.
Despite the inevitability of all of this and the apparent absurdity of trying to outrun mortality, research seems to indicate that the best thing you can do for yourself is run anyway. A willingness to accede to the ravages of time is now shown to actually speed up the process.
In short, growing old disgracefully and doing your best to ‘stay young’ is the best thing you can do to live as long as possible.
You may never have thought about this, but everything has its time, and the plants and animals you share this planet with face the end at some point in their lives. But you as a human being differ from them in one important aspect. You’re a member of the only species who lives with the knowledge that at some point you’re going to die.
I have five children and have noticed that they each seemed to become aware of death as a concept before they even got to kindergarten. Whether it was an elderly relative, a person on the TV news or the ‘circle of life’ explained so brilliantly in The Lion King, somehow they got their heads around the idea of human frailty.
If you think about it, that’s a pretty long time to know your days are numbered. Right now in the OECD, the average life expectancy is just over 79 years. For a third of children born today they expect to see their hundredth birthday.
If that number sounds like a decent innings to you then you’d be right.
As the 20th century began, average life expectancy was just 47 years of age. For the extra 3 or so decades we can now all expect to see, we can thank science, or more specifically, antibiotics and vaccines and flushing toilets and vast improvements in the understanding and detection of a range of diseases and conditions.
Looking ahead, it’s anticipated that scientists’ understanding of genetics will add even more decades, as will the increasing focus on understanding and treating a range of cancers and dementia.
Despite all of this, as we age, we have a tendency to slow down. Not just physically; we seem to willingly slow down and stop doing the things that we used to do and we stop trying out new things. We think this will extend our days but the research is showing that the opposite is true. As we age we start to stay in more and experience less. We take less risks and stick to what we know. Our world and our existence start to close in.
Who wants to have some fun?
Stay with me here.
Statistically the thing that is now most likely to end your life is dementia (it’s in the process of overtaking heart disease as our single biggest killer).
Most people understand that living a healthy lifestyle will help ward off cardio-vascular disease. That’s an empowering thought. With dementia, however, it seems a little more indiscriminate.
But here’s some exciting news. This month a Yale University study has been released of a group of just under 5,000 people with an average age of 72. It found that those who carried a gene variant linked to dementia, but who also had a positive attitude towards ageing were 50% less likely to develop dementia than people in the same study who carried the gene but who approached ageing with a negative attitude or fear.
So a glass half full attitude won’t just serve you well throughout your life, but it is shown to extend your years and even ward off the very condition that is most likely to end your days.
You may be wondering how to act on this piece of information. Sure, being positive and cheerful is easy to say, but how do you actually introduce it into your life and sustain it. Once again, the research is in and it’s all pretty good news.
There seems to be five themes that permeate all of the research available today.
1. Keep it social.
You may have heard over the years how important it is to have having family close by as we age. But more recent research shows that the bond with family has been overstated. The more important thing is to maintain close relationships with people who are close by. It should be added that these relationships don’t need to be all sweetness and light. They just need to be authentic. It’s important to feel connected, and whether that connection is through shared interests or common goals or even debating the news of the day, friendship counts.
Caring about people around you adds years to your life. In societies where older people can wander around town and bump into people and feel a social connection, life expectancy is high.
2. Move baby move.
Just how much exercise does it take to stay alive?
Here at HeadUp, this has been a question we’ve been asking and examining passionately for many years.
For most adults the tried and tested 10,000 steps per day is a good marker. As you age, the target can drop, and so long as you keep moving even at a moderate intensity, you’ll be doing your best to outrun the Grim Reaper.
Just last year, a Canadian study found that elderly people who exercised for 15 minutes a day with a brisk walk had a 22% lower risk of early death compared to people who did no exercise at all.
Note that points one and two are actually connected because walking around your neighbourhood is a sure fire way to stay connected to it and the people around you.
3. Eat well.
This might seem like a fairly broad piece of advice but most studies don’t indicate that a specific diet is the cure all for humankind. But, what study after study shows, is that everything in moderation is a good strategy. The Japanese live longer than most on a diet of mainly fish and rice. The Italians also live long lives and eat mostly pasta and meats. And the French, who also enjoy longevity, are famous for their bread and cheese.
‘Everything in moderation’ has been around a long time, and so have the people who practice it. In case you’re after a hard piece of guidance for this point then here’s a handy tip: eat breakfast.
The one consistent thing that seems to run through every examination of people who live into their 90’s and beyond is that they always eat breakfast.
4. Drink up
This is possibly the best news of all.
Alcohol has a place in a long and healthy life.
Just six months ago the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a study of over 330,000 people found that light to moderate alcohol use is associated with a 20% reduction in risk of death from any cause when compared to people who never drink.
If you happen to be wondering what light to moderate drinking is then its defined as 14 or fewer drinks per week for men and seven or fewer for women.
As you may have already discovered through your own personal study of how alcohol works, it’s best to spread these out over a week rather than ‘bank’ them and load up all at once.
5. Sex is natural, sex is good
Once again, your own personal observation may have gotten you to the realisation that having sex makes you happy. Study after study will back you up. Just on twenty years ago, one welcome paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) followed 918 men in a Welsh town over a decade. It concluded that those with a higher frequency of orgasm halved their risk of mortality.
In more clinical terms it seems that it isn’t just sex, but intimacy that’s important to maintain as we age.
At HeadUp, our purpose is to help you live longer and stay out of trouble. We do this by collecting and overlaying your health and lifestyle data with the growing body of research that exists. We can then guide you towards paying attention to what’s important and help steer you away from the things that have a negative impact.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get out there and enjoy every day. In fact, the beautiful reality is that you must.
The secret to a long life is not just measured by how many years you live, but equally, by how much life you put into each year.