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17. May 2022

Longevity: What makes us live long and healthily?

None of us knows how long we will live. Recent research shows: although our genes are involved, we have much more influence on our life expectancy than we thought. Our lifestyle plays a big role in this matter. Together with Appinio, we conducted a study in Germany and England that investigated how people feel about aging.

What you can for yourself if you wish to live a healthy, long life, you will learn in the following.

For decades, life expectancy rose continuously, especially in the western industrialised nations. This was caused, among other things, by better living conditions and continuing medical progress. Generation after generation could count on a higher life expectancy than the previous one. This trend has now been stopped for the first time. People are once more dying at an earlier age. The reasons seem to be manifold. However, one major factor is our unhealthy lifestyle, which entails little exercise and poor nutrition. It’s time to reverse this trend. So, how can you live longer and be healthy at the same time?

It is true that a considerable part of our personal risk for chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular maladies or tumours, is predetermined by our genes. Such diseases are often passed on within families. Nevertheless, this knowledge should not make us apathetic, especially in the case of a high risk of disease!

The higher the personal genetic risk, the more promising are preventive measures e.g exercise and a healthy diet. 

So, what’s important is this: while we need to accept our genetic make-up as it is, we can improve our habits in order to age healthier.

The average life expectancy of men and women is different. Women live to be 82 years old on average, men 78. According to a study by Appinio, the desired lifespan of men is 81 years on average, while women hope to still be able to celebrate their 83rd birthday. This is not too far removed from current life expectancy. How nice would it be if we could also reach this age whilst staying healthy and fit, if possible, without or at least hardly burdening illness(es)?

What happens to people in old age?

In order to achieve this goal, let us first clarify what ageing actually means. Most living beings reach the peak of their performance at their reproductive age. After successful reproduction and rearing of offspring, their task is, strictly speaking, fulfilled. Human genes and the way they interact with each other mean that humans reach their optimum fitness between 20 and 30 years of age. After that, at the latest, the ageing processes begin. Over the course of these, the nerve cells in the brain gradually lose their plasticity, and it takes longer and longer for new synapses to form. At the same time, the activity of the stem cells decreases. As a result, the regenerative capacity of the organs diminishes. In parallel, the number of genetic mutations, i.e., changes and defects, rises. Increased blood sugar levels also cause accelerated ageing of the proteins. The reason for this is the accumulation of sugar on these proteins. The slowing down of the metabolism makes it increasingly difficult for the body to eliminate or break down toxic substances. Overall, these processes promote chronic inflammation at a low level. This so-called “silent inflammation” is currently regarded as the motor of almost all ageing processes. Mental development follows a similar pattern, though not quite as drastically. The ageing person gains more and more experience, but often loses creativity. Learning something new becomes more and more difficult. The memory deteriorates at an increasing pace.

Experts say that the maximum biological lifespan of humans is about 120 years. The fact that the average life expectancy of the population has increased so dramatically in the last century is largely due to advances in medicine. For example, improved hygiene, among other things, has significantly reduced infant mortality. Several potentially fatal infectious diseases became treatable through the development of antibiotics. There are many other reasons, as well: improved diagnostics mean that many potentially fatal diseases can be detected earlier and can be optimally treated and, in some cases, completely cured by new therapeutic methods. Until recently, it was assumed that life expectancy in Germany would rise to 90 years by 2035. Whether this age can actually be reached depends on whether the generally unhealthy lifestyle of the population is reversed. People who take care of their health value sufficient exercise and good nutrition. They value a good work-life balance, try to minimise stress, and attempt to slow down.

To what extent and how can life be prolonged?

The vast majority of respondents from our study show interest in living indefinitely, but not at any price. For that, the conditions would also have to be right. Two-thirds of people would only want to live to a very old age if health problems never occurred. Almost as many would only consider this if their loved ones also lived forever, which in turn shows how important social contacts are for a healthy, long life.

When one grows significantly older than the average, then one can speak of longevity. The goal here is to strive for the highest possible age with full health. This can be achieved through healthy behaviour:

The diet should be healthy and balanced. It comes as no surprise that sugar and highly processed foods are not beneficial to one’s health. Especially plant-based foods are good for us, as they contain many nutrients and fibres, vitamins and minerals, as well as phytochemicals. The quality of these micronutrients is very important. Basically, anything that is naturally grown is fundamentally healthier for us than highly processed food from the factory. It doesn’t matter whether it’s high-carbohydrate or high-fat food. Nuts, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes – such as beans and lentils – are particularly “life-enhancing”. The consumption of red meat and meat products as well as sweet drinks should be reduced.

An exciting micronutrient in this context is spermidine, which can be seen as the cells’ rubbish disposal. It stimulates the so-called “autophagy”. This process serves to break down aged cell components and thus contributes to cell rejuvenation. Experts have researched the mode of action of this biogenic polyamine and have found that it slows down many ageing processes while supporting memory. However, with age, the concentration of the body’s own spermidine decreases. Due to this, the ageing processes progress. To compensate, a spermidine-rich diet is recommended. This could extend life expectancy by about five years. The onset and progression of Alzheimer’s dementia – which affects about one third of people in their mid-eighties – could possibly be delayed in this way. What foods contain this useful micronutrient? The main sources are wheat germ, ripe cheese, mushrooms, legumes, and broccoli. Spermidine can also be added as a food supplement.

Fasting is a great way to improve health and slow down the ageing process. The risks for many chronic and age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s and cancer can be reduced by fasting. This is because humans are not designed to eat all day. In prehistoric times, we could often go many hours, even several days or weeks without eating. The human metabolism is still designed for this. Even very short periods of fasting can activate many “anti-ageing” mechanisms and bring significant health benefits. Indeed, regular periods of fasting also stimulate cell cleansing.

Today, exercise is considered a central factor for longevity, because it is assumed that sport inhibits inflammatory reactions and helps to reduce oxidative stress in the cells. People who walk many steps a day prolong their lives. Many studies have already come to this conclusion. These studies confirm that walking is one of the safest and easiest ways to improve fitness and health. At least 150 minutes of moderate activity is recommended, which is only two and a half hours per week.

Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are other significant risk factors for the cardiovascular system and for many types of cancer. Smokers live, on average, ten years shorter than non-smokers. Alcohol is said to subtract up to five years from one’s lifespan if consumed regularly at a higher level, as it significantly damages the liver. Still, even regular moderate alcohol consumption is suspected of negatively influencing brain functions.

Relaxation, stress reduction and sleep: Slow, conscious breathing may not only reduce stress but also prolong life. Stress has many negative effects on the human body: blood pressure rises, which alarms the cardiovascular system; inflammatory processes are fuelled; sleep disorders can occur as a result. We all know that sleeping badly has negative effects on the whole day. An increased craving for something sweet is just one effect we would like to mention here. Just five to ten minutes of slow breathing can be enough to relax and calm down. As a positive side effect, we give ourselves the feeling of having done something good. This activates our reward system. Therefore, breathing is not only healthy; it also makes us happy.

Social contacts should not be underestimated, because having your family and good friends around you increases the chance of a long, healthy life. Maintain your social contacts, because the time we spend with our loved ones actually seems to increase life expectancy, perhaps because it reduces stress or risky behaviour.

Read more about our study “Eternal Life” here.