Kinga/Shutterstock
Source: Kinga/Shutterstock

How could you live a longer, happier, and healthier life? Whatever your age, you have a vested interest in the answer. As a member of the Medicare generation, the question is of vital importance to me. Amazingly, I am enjoying life today more than ever, and that joy motivates me to keep going for as long as possible.

By the way, I am not alone in my late-in-life happiness: Large-scale research studies reveal that older adults experience happier lives as they age, even if they have a few physical ailments. What a surprising and wonderful finding—and I want you to experience this same happiness. So I’ve scanned for the latest research on extending our lifespan. What was new in 2016? First, let's take a quick look at what we already know. 

Well-Known Longevity Factors

Research has supported the links between longevity and the following behaviors:

  • Exercise. Exercise! EXERCISE! Even small doses will extend your life. (By how much? By this much.)
  • Connecting with others. Surround yourself with good people.
  • Reducing stress. Aim for challenges that stretch you but don’t overwhelm you. 
  • Managing your money wisely. Debt is a willpower vampire, a huge stressor, and a joy-killer, according to this research. Have a financial cushion.
  • Eating healthy foods most of the time.
  • Sleeping for 7-8 hours per night.
  • Engaging in meaningful activities.
  • Drinking coffee. (Oh, joy!)

In their 2011 book, The Longevity Project, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin reported that the most important factor in longevity was not a behavior, per se, but a character trait: Conscientiousness. Conscientious people take care of their health, keep their medical appointments, are responsible to friends and family, and practice healthy habits.  

And Now…Longevity Studies from 2016

Research from 2016 adds three somewhat surprising, recommendations to the list:

1. Read more books.

A recent study found that 30 minutes of reading books per day was associated with a two-year increase in life span for those 50 or older. What validation for those of us who love to read anyway!  According to the study (summarized here):

“The research team examined the reading habits of 3,635 people who were 50 or older and their survival was observed over 12 years follow-up. Factors such as education, gender, marital status, wealth, health conditions and depression were controlled for in the study.”

Further, the longevity bonus was higher for book readers than for magazine and newspaper readers, which, in turn was higher than for non-readers. Book readers who read up to the standard of 30 minutes a day (or 3.5 hours a week) were 17 percent less likely to die over the 12-year follow-up. That’s a big bump in life expectancy.

Exactly why book-reading can contribute to a longer life is unclear, even to the study’s authors. Obviously, reading would have cognitive benefits. Because book reading keeps you sharper, maybe such readers would take fewer risks that could lead to mortal accidents. Maybe readers are more introverted, making them less likely to cave in to social pressures to drink, smoke, or engage in other risky activities. Another possibility: You have to settle down and concentrate in order to read, so could it have some of the calming effects of meditation?

Caution: If you spend too much time on your duff with a book, you will be at higher risk for diabetes, low mood, and weight gain. Remember the cry, “Sitting is the new smoking?” I never quite believed it, but a plethora of research does warn us about the hazards of sitting. So, if you decide to read more, get up every hour and move around for 5-10 minutes. Your body and mind will thank you, according to this study. (If you are reading this blog on a treadmill, never mind.)

Recommendation: Read more and move more. If you are like me and can’t sit still for more than 50 minutes anyway, you are probably well protected against “sitting diseases.” 

2.  Help others…but not too much.  

Giving the right dose of emotional support to others will extend your life span. In a study of 500 people over age 70, those who helped out their families and friends by giving occasional support, whether to their children, grandchildren, or even other people’s children, reaped the benefit of a longer life.

Cautions: The adage, “Moderation in all things,” seemed to apply to this particular helping situation. Too much caregiving can be stressful. For example, in the study cited above, custodial grandparents experienced more stress than those who simply provided occasional physical and emotional support. And high caregiver stress is associated with negative health outcomes. But with too little caregiving, you may be at risk of sinking into isolation or self-absorption. 

Recommendation: Know your “Goldilocks point” for helping out—not too much, not too little, but just right. If you sense that you are getting overloaded, cut back on your caregiving. 

3. Connect through Facebook...but not too much.

It has long been known that social networks are a strong predictor of longevity. Good relationships buffer us from stress, lowering our risk for illness and early death. But this year, researchers from the University of California at San Diego studied 12 million Facebook users (not a misprint) and discovered that even online relationships are associated with a lower risk of death for those born between 1945 and 1989. Facebook users were about 12 percent less likely to die than those not on Facebook. Of Facebook users, those who lived the longest had these traits:

  1. They interacted with others offline, not just on Facebook.
  2. Individuals with average or large Facebook networks lived longer than those with smaller ones.
  3. Those who accepted the most friendship requests lived longer.

By the way, some activities on Facebook were not correlated with a longer life, including the number of “likes” your posts received.

Cautions: As people age, some friendships will be lost through geographical distance, death, and divorce. It’s comforting to know that online contact with friends could mitigate these harsh realities to some extent, as long as face-to-face friendships can also be cultivated. (Note: There are issues with privacy and the use of your data on any social media site, including Facebook. It should also be noted that Facebook collaborated with this study.)

© Meg Selig, 2017

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