Aging is influenced by many factors, including genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors. A Danish study reports that genetics account for 25% of longevity. The rest of longevity is determined by lifestyle and environment. This means there is a lot you can do to shape the outcome of your health and the duration of your life!  With life expectancy climbing from 68.2 years in 1950 to 81.2 years in 2016, and chronic disease rates skyrocketing, this is an investment worth your time!
National Geographic had researcher Dan Buettner study the "Blue Zones," areas in the world where people lived the longest. The commonalities he found were lifestyles high in exercise and low in sugar and processed foods. Healthy diet and exercise played a major role but were not the only factors. He also found adequate social structure to be a predominant theme with significant social support through self-described healthy relationships, cooperation, and support of their elderly. Additionally, these areas had accessible health care and frequent exposure to nature.
Here are five recommendations for improving your longevity.
1. Exercise often. Get in the habit of moving your body every day. The hardest part is getting started, so begin with small attainable goals as a first step. Try going for a 15 minute walk after dinner each night, taking the stairs, and choosing the parking spot furthest away. You can build from there. Incorporating weightlifting is crucial for maintaining bone density and muscle mass as we age. It is also helpful for lowering blood sugars and improving cognition. Eventually work your way up to the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise. Hint: You should be sweating!
2. Eat vegetables. Try to eat a vegetable at every meal, including breakfast! You can estimate the amount of vegetables in a healthy diet by splitting your plate in quarters. One quarter protein, one quarter starch/whole grains/fats, and the other half vegetables. Sneak vegetables in with morning smoothies. If you are lacking ideas, consider seeing a nutritionist who can develop a program for you based on your current habits. Identify where you are in the spectrum and commit to one step towards your ideal goal.
3. Get a restful night sleep, approximately eight hours is recommended. This will help preserve your circadian rhythms which naturally become imbalanced as we age. This affects our hormone levels and can influence our stress response. Set a bedtime and a habit of unwinding before bed. Your body will recognize this pattern with consistency and sleep will become easier. Aim to be in bed by 10 pm. Ancient Chinese philosophy indicates it is after this time that we get our “second wind.”
4. Build and nourish meaningful relationships that provide a feeling of connectedness. Buettner's study of the "Blue Zone" areas showed that a sense of community had a powerful impact on health outcomes. The American Society on Aging notes a 50% increase in survival with individuals who had robust, nurturing relationships. 
5. Decrease screen time and take a break from social media! The easiest way to incorporate these changes is to identify activities that are distracting or consuming your time in a way that makes the above recommendations seem out of reach. Additionally, studies are linking social media with an increased incidence of depression. Do a 3-day trial without social media and see how you feel!
Creating positive habits is difficult and daunting at times. Identifying small steps, not too distant from your starting point can help achieve these goals. Reach out to health care providers that can help identify obstacles in the way of attaining your goals and provide structured and tested methods of implementing change. Recruit your friends and family to participate in these changes and check off two items from the list! There is no fancy pill, no multivitamin that can replace the benefits of maintaining a lifestyle rich in exercise, good food, and social support.
1. Hjelmborg J, Iachine I, Skytthe A, et al. Genetic influence on human lifespan and longevity. Hum Genet 2006; 119:312.
2. Honn Qualls, S. (2014, March 06). What Social Relationships Can Do for Health | American Society on Aging. Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.asaging.org/blog/what-social-relationships-can-do-health
Dr. Heather Flood is a second-year resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, providing supervision and clinical training to student physicians in the Department of Naturopathic Medicine.
Bastyr University students visit Sacramento, CA to advocate for natural medicine.