Five keys to a long and fulfilling life

Keep your heart healthy and reduce stress and you'll live longer

Posted Jan 19, 2010

There is only one way to grow old: don't die. This ridiculously simple observation can be the key to your own long and fulfilling life. Yes, there's a lot of luck involved in living a long life. You have to inherit good "longevity" genes, and you have to be able to avoid threats to your life from natural disasters, wars, and accidents. But there are many ways you can increase the odds of surviving into your 80s, 90s, and beyond.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these are the five keys to a long life:

1. Maintain a healthy body weight. Ideally, your BMI should be less than 25. Unfortunately, using BMI as a criterion, the U.S. Census shows us that only one-third of the adults in the U.S. are considered to have a healthy BMI.


2. Consume sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables each day. Not only will this help you live longer, but it will also help to maintain your cognitive functioning. Using the CDC's guidelines, only 14% of all adults in the U.S. consume recommended amounts of these key dietary ingredients. According to the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System (BRFSS), people living in the central and southern states (outside Florida) show the least healthy patterns of fruit and vegetable intake.

3. Be physically active. We've already seen that people such as Jack LaLanne benefit from physical activity, but even if you don't follow his strict regimens of daily exercise, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is crucial to a long and healthy life. Yet, the majority of adults, particularly those 45 and older, do not exercise according to the CDC. Even fewer engage in resistance training.

4. Avoid cigarette smoking. Fewer and fewer Americans smoke cigarettes but there remain a staunch 25% of men and 35% of women in middle adulthood who continue this health-endangering activity. Predictably, either because they've quit or they are no longer alive to talk about it, the percent drops significantly among adults 65 and older. But to get to that point, it's best not to start or if you have, to quit.

5. Don't drink and drive. Although the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, and number two is cancer, the number one preventable cause of death is alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents because this is what shortens life prematurely. Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death among young Americans. Fatal accidents involving alcohol peak in the early 20s, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. If you want to live to middle age and beyond, you have to survive past this dangerous period of life.


The great news about these tips for a long life build on each other. Once you start becoming more active, eating a healthier diet, and quitting smoking, your health will improve, you'll feel better about yourself, and you'll be even more motivated to keep up these lifestyle changes. And if you're already following these tips, you can be glad to know that you're taking the most positive steps you can to feeling physically and mentally healthy.

Since 1999, a substantial amount of data produced by the U.S. Government, the World Health Organization, and a host of other federal, state, and international agencies continue to support its findings. Even as the U.S. grapples with the issue of health care reform, we as individuals can reform our own health, and in the process live successfully into our later years.

And the best part about these healthy behaviors is that the more we engage in them, the better we feel about ourselves. We are also more likely to retain our cognitive abilities because good physical health is the key to better memory, problem-solving, and reaction time. 

Mental alertness

So start now. Get out of your chair (because sitting is associated with poorer health). Walk down the block to your corner grocery store and load up on some fresh produce. Nothing exotic-- bananas, apples, the basics are fine. The money you save on cigarettes can be invested in a decent pair of sneakers or a set of free weights (they're available even at Walmart). Your pathway to fulfillment starts now with these healthy habits!

One health tip I haven't mentioned is avoiding the sun. With the new FDA rules regulating sunscreen, this is particularly important. And, you do don't have to do anything other than reapply every couple of hours. No treadmill required. Who can beat that for an easy life-extending routine?

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010