Having strong, positive relationships is one key to living longer, experts have said. (Lumos sp, Adobe Stock)
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ATLANTA — Whether it’s pursuing a demanding career, eating better or maintaining friendships, accomplishing the feats we most desire requires a healthy foundation.
“The long-term effects of good and bad health habits are cumulative. Simply stated, you cannot outrun your past,” said Dr. William Roberts, a professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota, via email.
Getting enough physical activity and seeing your doctor regularly is a good place to start, CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen said.
“There’s a lot of evidence about the things we can do proactively that can improve our longevity as well as the quality,” said Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Here are some habits worth implementing to give yourself the best chance at a longer, happier life.
1. Regular screenings
Young people tend to have fewer chronic illnesses than older ones, but prevention is key, Wen said. “If you screen positive for prediabetes, for example, there are steps that you can take to prevent progressing to diabetes.”
Annual checkups also enable you and your doctor to get to know each other, she added. “The best time to see your physician is not when you already have symptoms and need help — it’s on a regular basis to build and establish that relationship so that your physician can get a baseline of your health.”
2. Consistent physical activity
Getting enough physical activity can lower your risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, Wen said.
“There’s an overwhelming body of research that supports regular aerobic exercise for not only living longer but also to maintain cognitive function longer,” said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of Atria New York City and clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
The World Health Organization has recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity weekly, while pregnant people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic and strengthening per week.
3. A healthy BMI
Body mass index is a measurement of body fat that assesses a person’s weight category and potential risk for health issues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maintaining a healthy BMI can lengthen your life by more than a decade, a 2018 study found, and has been linked with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Regular physical activity and eating healthy foods can help you with this goal.
4. Proper nutrition
Eating more plant-based foods provides a great source of antioxidants, Goldberg said. “Oxidation is a sign of stress in our system and can lead to changes in the buildup of plaque in the arteries and such,” she said. “And this oxidation is also associated with aging.”
You could extend your life by eating fewer red and processed meats and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts, according to a February study published in the journal PLOS Medicine. The potential benefits are especially strong if you start young — women who began eating optimally at age 20 could increase life span by a little over 10 years, while men who start at the same age could add 13 years.
At mealtime, at least half your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables, Goldberg said. Also, what’s important is “not only what’s on the food, but how you prepare it,” she added. “So baking and broiling is better than frying.”
5. Pay attention to mental wellness
Mental health is often “such a neglected part of our overall health, but actually contributes a huge amount to overall health and well-being,” Wen said.
The past few years have brought about stress and anxiety, which can affect blood pressure, sleep, dietary choices, alcohol intake or attempts to quit smoking, Goldberg said.
Carving out just 15 minutes for a bit of mental health hygiene can make your life easier, experts have said. Try taking deep breaths upon waking, being present with your morning coffee instead of being distracted, going for a walk, journaling and taking breaks from screens.
The benefits of these mindfulness practices come from lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone linked with health complications. Being able to regulate your emotions better — which can be achieved with meditation — has been associated with health resilience in older age.
6. Plenty of sleep
People who sleep less than seven hours nightly tend to have higher levels of stress hormones, blood sugar and blood pressure, Goldberg said.
You can improve the quality and quantity of your sleep by getting regular exercise and having good sleep hygiene. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cold at night, and only use it for sleep and sex.
7. Drinking less
“For a long time, people have been associating alcohol with a healthier heart,” Goldberg said. But “heavy alcohol intake can actually be a direct toxin to the heart muscle and result in heart failure. And it also raises (blood sugar levels) and causes weight gain.”
Avoiding too much alcohol can add at least several years to your life by lowering your risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic diseases, a 2020 study found.
8. Not smoking
“Smoking is a major risk factor that increases the likelihood of multiple cancers — not just lung cancer but also things like breast cancer,” Wen said. It also “increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and other conditions that shorten people’s lives.”
If you’re a habitual smoker, it’s not too late to quit to lengthen your life, Wen added.
9. Build strong relationships
Having close, positive relationships adds happiness and comfort to our lives and reduces stress, experts have said. Studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and community have fewer health problems, live longer and experience less depression and cognitive decline later in life, according to Harvard Health.
If implementing all these habits feels like a lot, think of them as a gradual build, Wen said. “We may not be perfect on everything all the time,” she said, “but (there are) things that we can do to improve in one or multiple dimensions, and we could commit to that kind of lifestyle improvement.”