A Brief Look at Living Longer and Better

Jack LaLanne
Jack LaLanne at age 71

In a recent newsletter, Logan Franklin of Gray Iron Fitness asked “What are your longevity odds?” Part of what he wrote was:

My doctor, normally a cheerful person, seemed somewhat subdued at a recent appointment. So I asked how things were going. She told me that a good friend and medical school classmate was just diagnosed with lung cancer. He is only 40 years old, and he never smoked.

When I later mentioned this to a friend, he said, “That’s just as I have always believed. You can avoid health hazards and be struck down anyway. So why not smoke if you enjoy it?” There’s some twisted logic there; but he is right about one thing: Regardless of having good health habits, there is no absolute guarantee of a long, disease free life. There are only good odds and bad odds.

Franklin went on to say that how long we live and how healthy we’ll be as we age isn’t totally a roll of the dice, and that we can hedge our bets (sorry for all the gambling metaphors) by exercising and living a healthy lifestyle. It’s sort of like locking your car door when you leave your vehicle in a parking lot to go grocery shopping. If you left it unlocked, maybe no one would steal your rig, but why take the chance?

At one point, Franklin made a comparison between Jack LaLanne a well-known fitness and exercise expert who died in 2011 at the age of 96, and Jim Fixx, a popular jogging enthusiast and best-selling author who died suddenly at the age of 52 while (of all things) jogging.

People who tend to believe regular exercise helps you live longer with better quality of life point to LaLanne as an example. Those who think it’s all a matter of chance cite the life and death of Jim Fixx.

Is there any way to figure out why one person might live longer than another and can that information be useful in increasing not only our longevity but also our “healthfulness?”

My answer to that question isn’t particularly scientific or exhaustive. I did a quick Google search of the text string “why do some people live longer than others?” I took the top several relevant results and had a look.

As it turns out, genetics plays a part in who tends to live longer according to the LifeExtension site, an article at The Independent, and Age Watch.

The LifeExtension article says in part:

The same researchers published another study of nonagenarians (persons from 90 to 99 years old) and centenarians, which noted that the discovery of genetic factors associated with exceptional longevity increases with the age of the subjects. This study, and many others, strongly suggests that the genetic component of exceptional longevity gets larger with increasing age, and is especially high for those aged 106 years and older.

The Independent’s story added:

The test is based on a scan of a person’s entire genome; so far it can predict whether someone is likely to live to 100 with an accuracy of 77 per cent. However, refinements to the test will improve its precision, raising the prospect that it could one day be used to predict whether someone is genetically predisposed to extreme longevity.

However, we can’t control the genes our parents gave us. Are there other factors contributing to longevity that we can control?

A short article at US News and World Report states that in addition to more women living longer and more non-Hispanic Whites living longer, those people demonstrating longer lifespans tended to live with other people, lived in urban settings (I didn’t see that one coming), and lived in either the Northeast or Midwestern parts of the United States (obviously this was only normed on an American population).

japanese bento
Japanese Bento

Both Age Watch and The Guardian said that living in Japan seemed to be a significant factor. Contributing elements to Japanese longevity included universal health care, a diet consisting of high amounts of taurine, found in fish, and fucoidans from seaweed, a lifestyle involving participation in walking, bicycling, tai chi, and yoga, and societal emphasis on health consciousness and social cohesion.

It should also be noted that not only are a significant portion of Japanese meals made up of fish and seaweed, but meal portions are a lot smaller. When she was in high school, my daughter spent a year in Japan as an exchange student. When we saw photos of the box lunch she took to school daily, I was very surprised at how small it was. Not only do we Americans tend to eat the wrong things, but we eat too much, even if we are eating healthy foods.

The Guardian was the only article to offer a list of what I consider practical and accessible suggestions. In addition to moving to Japan, the list consists of:

  1. Getting your blood pressure checked
  2. Eating more nuts and seeds
  3. Drinking alcohol in moderation
  4. Moderate exercise
  5. Not smoking
  6. Staying out of the hospital
  7. Reducing stress
  8. Taking the train rather than driving

They also suggested living in the south of England rather than the north, but that hardly seems relevant unless you live in England in the first place.

Eating more nuts and seeds goes along with what I said the other day about eating a so-called “Paleo Diet”. Of course, moderate exercise is a large part of what I’ve been talking about in relation to senior fitness and extending quality of life as we get older.

Not smoking cigarettes should be a no-brainer as should getting regular physical exams, including checking blood pressure.

I’ve heard about light to moderate alcohol consumption, usually in the form of red wine, as a way to live longer for some time now. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and he says he applies moderation to just about every aspect of his life, not just the occasional drink or two.

Stress probably relates back to blood pressure and I can’t help but think of Japanese practices mentioned above such as tai chi and yoga, both of which emphasize maintaining an inner calm. That could also be associated with taking public transportation rather than driving. I know I’m not always calm when dealing with rush hour traffic.

Staying out of the hospital. Well, that’s what we’re all trying to do, especially those of us on the high side of 50, 60 and beyond. But that’s not just saying we want to avoid health circumstances that would put us in the hospital, but that hospitals are not healthy environments.

Sounds shocking since, when we become seriously ill or injured, we depend on hospital care to help us get on the mend. Hospitals, for what should be obvious reasons, have large numbers of people with communicable diseases and if you should be exposed to a “superbug” such as MRSA or C Difficile (though rates of occurrence in hospitals have fallen quite a bit), you could end up worse off after being in the hospital for a while than you were in when you first went in.

Conclusion

Based on what little information I’ve presented here, my initial conclusion is that there are steps we can take to protect ourselves from becoming ill, premature deterioration of quality of life, and of course, an untimely demise.

stretchingYou can’t control your genetics, but you can control your lifestyle. Okay, you can’t eliminate all stress from your life, but you can take steps to manage stress, which will go at least part way to lowering your blood pressure or keeping it in a healthy range. You can control what you eat and drink, how much you eat and drink, and your activity level in terms of resistance, cardio exercise, and any other way you choose to move around your body.

I like to think of all this as not avoiding death so much as living each day as the healthiest person I can be. It’s not just living longer, but enjoying every day you’re alive.

And just to show you that getting older can be a lot of fun, here’s an endearing story about 91-year-old Ricardo Farfan, who’s been “clowning around” since 1927 when he was three years old. Enjoy.

Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.

Muhammad Ali

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5 thoughts on “A Brief Look at Living Longer and Better

  1. Great summary! I find longevity is too weak as a motivator for those sacrifices a healthy lifestyle requires. For me, what keeps me exercising, eating right and praying a lot is the desire to live each day fully, however long I last.

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  2. What keeps me motivated is the ‘high’ I feel from working out. My quality of life — and enjoyment of life — has significantly improved since I started weight training again!

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    1. I agree, Wanda. There’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment I get at the end of a workout, plus how I look and feel as the day progresses. Glad to hear you’re back at weight training. Keep up the good work.

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  3. For me, it’s not how long you live: it’s a matter of enjoying exercise in whatever activity that relieves stress and enhances physical performance. Also, its not what your body looks like, it’s what it can do.
    It’s never too late to start a fitness program, but the sooner the better. There are some great YouTube videos of over 60 fitness heroes: search “over 60 fitness stars”. Tony Horton (now 56) stresses variety, which is truly the spice of life. If you’re getting bored, add another activity to your routine. I’m 57 and do P90x, Crossfit, and very hardcore swimming with many stroke variations. I can put away 18-40 year-old “kids” who are at least twice as strong as I am. But they can’t hang with my endurance, stamina, and technique. Don’t be intimidated by those who are better, do it for yourself. This is a great website, as is the Gray Iron webpage. Keep on and make it fun! And remember: gardening, landscaping, housecleaning, and other domestic chores are opportunities for exercise. Use manual tools rather than electric or gas-powered versions and maybe wear wrist-weights. The possibilities are endless! Enjoy a pure life and the freedom it provides. I have been Straight Edge for nearly a decade: no alcohol, tobacco or drugs. As others have said on this blog, the kinetic energy from physical fitness and general activity is the “highest high” you can experience. Go for it!

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