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A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Longevity

Wellness Feature

Written by Samantha Lund

Earlier this year, the New York Times published a study about push-ups and life expectancy. In this study, researchers found that participants who could do 40 push-ups had less risk of cardiovascular problems than those who could only complete 10 or fewer. For the headline’s purposes, though, this study was branded as “the more push-ups you can do, the longer you will live.”

That’s just one story among the overload of information that’s constantly circulating about living longer; the overload confuses people with contradictory studies that find avocados both healthy and not, and running both good and bad for you. In this world of too much information, there are a few terms and studies to understand that will help you on your journey for a longer, healthier life.

What Is Longevity?

It’s easy to define “longevity” as a long life, but there’s a bit more to it when we’re discussing health and wellness. When researchers are studying longevity, they’re looking for people who have lived 100 years (centenarians), and at multiple aspects of those lives, such as health, quality of life, disabilities and any abnormalities (such as serious illnesses, cancers, etc.).

In 1998, a study was released about centenarians and their well-being. It found that people who lived to be 100 were often happier with their social, financial and health situation, having fewer complaints about their health and lifestyle, than participants who were 75 or 85 years old and in similar situations. The Mayo Clinic calls this finding the “measurement of successful aging.”

Chronological Age vs. Prospective Age

When discussing longevity, understanding the difference between chronological and prospective age is important. “Chronological age” is the term used for number of years a person has lived. “Prospective age” represents a person’s remaining years of life. This differentiation means that “age” is relative versus health indicators.

Essentially, it means that while not all people live 85 years, there could be internal or biological indicators that can predict a person’s “true age,” or prospective age. For example, a 60-year-old woman who will live to 85 is chronologically older than a 55-year-old man who will live to 65, but prospectively younger because she has more years remaining in her life span.

Biological Longevity Indicators

There are constant, ongoing studies researching the validity of biological longevity predictors. The only universally agreed-upon life-span indicator is that females live longer than males; however, this is not the type of prospective-age indicator we’re looking for. Instead, researchers seek prospective-age indicators that can lead to improving an individual’s life span. In simpler terms, you probably won’t decide to change your gender midlife to improve your longevity, but what could you change?

Telomeres may be a key to aging. They are structural “caps” at the ends of chromosomes, which act as helmets, protecting your essential DNA. As you age, your telomeres shorten, and once they’re at a “critical length,” they die. Research is currently underway to discern whether telomere length and age have a causational or correlational relationship.

Another indicator that’s currently being researched is the “epigenetic clock,” which is a biochemical test that measures your age based on DNA methylation levels. DNA methylation is the process by which methyl groups are added to DNA, which can affect your gene function (with disease, cancers, etc.). DNA methylation occurs throughout your life, due to environmental influences and lifestyle factors. To simplify, as you age, there are lifestyle and environmental factors that make markers on your DNA and can indicate your predictive age and chance of serious disease. This process and the results are the study of an individual’s epigenetic clock.

The last prevailing longevity-indicator theory is based on autophagy. Autophagy is the natural regeneration process of your cells, which reduces the likelihood of disease and prolongs life span. Autophagy research has led to a better understanding of diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s, but recently, doctors and researchers are studying the link between autophagy rates and longevity.

Autophagy is the process by which cells degrade and recycle their components to provide fuel for energy and building blocks for new cells. After infections, autophagy can destroy bacteria or viruses, and cells use autophagy to remove damaged proteins to counteract the negative effects of aging on the body. Research indicates fasting as a way to “turn on” autophagy.

Environmental and Lifestyle Indicators

Marital status: Married people have lower mortality rates than those who were never married, divorced or widowed, according to the International Federation on Ageing. The impact that a marriage has on lowering depression, combating loneliness and motivating a person to make healthier choices is a big factor in life span.

Socioeconomic status: As socioeconomic status decreases, so does life span. Socioeconomic status can affect access to medical care and participation in healthier lifestyle habits.

Location: The “Blue Zones” are areas along the equator where people live longer due to lifestyle, diet, exercise, and family ties. The seven zones include Sardinia in Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.

Education: More education is linked to better health outcomes and brings longer life expectancy. Health, wealth and education all relate to one another.

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