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Can You Increase Your Lifespan? Lifestyle & Diet Strategies

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

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Longevity
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The goal of living forever is a common theme found in mythical tales everywhere from Greek mythology to modern action films and sci-fi novels. While living forever might still be impossible, scientists have made remarkable progress in extending human life by almost three decades in the last century by developing a better understanding of what factors contribute to aging.

This article will take a dive into the research and summarize the lifestyle and diet hacks that may help you live the longest, healthiest life possible. Remember to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle and diet.

Lifestyle

The following lifestyle interventions may help you increase your longevity. Although most of them have multiple health benefits, remember to talk to your doctor before implementing any major lifestyle changes.

1) Exercise

People engaging in regular exercise have a decreased risk of heart disease, including a reduced risk of heart failure by 50% [1].

Regular exercise has beneficial effects on SIRT1, a gene that regulates cellular processes such as cell death and aging, brain protection, and longevity. Exercise training enhanced the SIRT longevity pathway in rats [2].

In flies, endurance training increased autophagy (cell recycling) in fat tissue while reducing the expression of a gene linked to reduced lifespan (mthl-3) [3].

Regular exercise is known to increase muscle mass. This has been shown to lower the frailty index (a combined measure of slow-walking speed, weakness, weight loss, energy expenditure, and exhaustion), a key factor in determining life expectancy [4].

The majority of these longevity benefits are from moderate exercise. Most endurance athletes perform far beyond the recommended levels of physical activity. Studies have shown that this sort of exercise is not healthy and can actually lead to a 10-20% enlargement of the heart and increase the risk of a sudden heart attack [1].

In fact, the longevity benefits associated with exercise might be achievable with non-exercise physical activity (NEPA) like gardening, walking, or just being on one’s feet all day. Like exercise, NEPA is associated with decreased waist circumference, improved blood fat profile (increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and decreased triglycerides), lower fasting insulin and glucose levels, and better metabolic and heart health [5].

Exercise also increases klotho, which is a protein and gene associated with longevity.

Given its multiple health benefits, it’s always a good idea to do more exercise. Experts recommend doing moderate exercise, or combining NEPA (such as taking walks or standing, treadmill, and bike desks) and high-intensity interval training.

2) Heat Stress and Sauna

A study of over 2,300 Finnish middle-aged men found that regular sauna use led to considerably decreased risks of heart disease and a lower chance of dying from all causes. The incidence of fatal heart disease or heart attack was reduced by 48% in those enjoying a sauna 4x-7x/week [6].

A review of clinical trials concluded that sauna may benefit heart health by improving heart muscle contractions, reducing blood vessel stiffness, and lowering blood fat levels and pressure [7].

Worms exposed to heat stress for periods shorter than 2 hours showed increased longevity. Apparently, heat stress protected them against age-related frailty [8].

Heat shock proteins produced during heat stress are important for basic cellular maintenance e.g. preventing harmful accumulations of unhealthy proteins. Flies repeatedly exposed to heat stress had a significant increase in lifespan, associated with higher levels of a heat shock protein (Hsp70) [9].

Yeast exposed to mild heat stress also lived longer, possibly due to the activation of RAS genes [10].

Heat stress acts as a hormetic response that reduces protein damage and buildup by boosting antioxidant activity, as well as repair and degradation processes (autophagy) [11].

Saunas are the best way to experience thermal stress. Discuss with your doctor how to use them therapeutically.

3) Sleep

A meta-analysis of 16 studies and 1,382,999 people found that both too short and excessively long sleep durations were linked to a greater risk of death. The risk of death was 12% greater in people sleeping less than 6 hours/night and 30% greater in those sleeping more than 9 hours/night when compared to people sleeping 7-8 hours/night [12].

The negative effects of not enough sleep were the same for all ages, regardless of location or social and economic status. A limitation of the study is that people who needed to sleep longer were probably also unhealthier.

Both long and short sleep duration were associated with type 2 diabetes in a meta-analysis of 11 studies. The 7-8 hour/night range was the one with the lowest risk [13].

Many other studies associated short sleep duration with conditions such as:

Getting a good night’s sleep is always a good idea if you want to achieve optimal health. Avoid sleep deprivation and be cautious of anyone selling you the idea that you can sleep for less than 6 hours and still be healthy.

You can improve your sleep by trying these methods and optimize it by improving your circadian rhythm.

4) Stress Reduction

Mothers caring for chronically ill children experienced changes to their chromosomes equivalent to several years of extra aging in a study on 58 women [22].

Similarly, a study on 82 caregivers found that chronic stress experienced by carers for people with Alzheimer’s disease shortened the caregivers’ lives by 4-8 years [23].

Both groups of carers had lowered immune function (fewer lymphocytes), more inflammation (more cytokines) and shorter telomeres.

You can avoid stressful triggers as much as possible and change what your body perceives as stress by deep-breathing exercises and meditation.

5) Social Wellbeing

A study on over 4,000 scientists showed that the enhanced social status associated with becoming an academic led to an average increase in lifespan of 1.2 years [24].

An analysis associated greater social integration with a lower risk of bad health at any age. During adolescence, social isolation caused levels of inflammation equivalent to physical inactivity. In later life, such isolation led to higher blood pressure than diabetes [25].

Foods

The following foods have been associated with an increased lifespan and a reduced incidence of some life-threatening conditions in clinical and animal studies. Discuss with your doctor how introducing them in your diet may be helpful in your case.

1) Seafood

Researchers looked at 16 years worth of data on 2,700 healthy adults over the age of 65. They found that individuals with higher levels of all three fatty acids found in fish (DHA, EPA, DPA) had a lower risk of death [26]:

  • DHA was linked to a 40% reduction in risk of death by heart disease.
  • EPA was associated with a lower risk of heart attacks.
  • DPA was associated with a lower risk of death from stroke.

Those with high levels of all of these fatty acids were 27% less likely to die during the study. They also lived 2 years longer, on average [26].

Mice fed a diet rich in DHA lived longer and had better brain function than those fed a diet high in saturated fats [26].

A study in worms found that fish oil consumption might increase lifespan by activating cell turnover (autophagy) [27].

2) Olive Oil

A number of researchers have linked olive oil to the good health and longevity of those eating a Mediterranean diet [28].

Consumption of 25 mL of olive oil daily reduced DNA oxidation in a clinical trial on 182 healthy men and a cell-based study [29, 30].

A study split rats up into two groups: one was fed sunflower oil and the other consumed olive oil. Over 40% of the sunflower oil group died of cancer, while there were very few deaths by cancer in the rats fed olive oil. A number of similar studies have found that animals live longer and also have a reduced risk of cancer when fed olive oil [31].

Olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants (phenols, secoiridoids, and lignans). These antioxidants might increase lifespan by scavenging inflammatory free radicals [31].

Olive oil can be oxidized and go rancid. For this reason, it is always best to buy it in dark bottles. Try not to expose the olive oil to air or heat unnecessarily and to buy single-source olive oils.

3) Nuts

A study on almost 119,000 people found that those who consumed nuts daily were less likely to die of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. Overall, they were 20% less likely to die during the study than nut avoiders [32].

However, keep in mind that you shouldn’t consume nuts if you are allergic or on a lectin avoidance diet.

4) Coffee

Coffee is one of the top sources of caffeine and antioxidant polyphenols in Western diets [33].

Several studies have associated habitual coffee consumption with reduced mortality and lower risks of heart failure, stroke, diabetes, and cancers [34, 33]

In a study on over 133,000 people, those who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had a 15% lower risk of early death than those who didn’t [35].

A Swedish study found that moderate coffee consumption increased the chances of living to 100 years old [36].

Coffee can leach the body of calcium so coffee drinkers should eat or supplement with adequate calcium. Additionally, coffee consumption is incompatible with a lectin avoidance diet [33].

5) Chocolate

A study on almost 21,000 middle-aged and older adults found that those who consumed up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate per day had lower rates of heart disease. 12% of chocolate eaters died of heart disease during the study, compared to 17.4% of non-chocolate eaters [37].

Another study split 470 men into two categories: those eating a lot of chocolate and those who didn’t eat much chocolate. Men were twice as likely to die from a heart attack in the chocolate-phobic group, while those who did had lower blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, and a reduced risk of dying from any cause [38].

In one study in rats, cocoa (24 mg/kg of body weight per day) extended lifespan and improved cognitive performance [39].

6) Fiber/Butyrate

Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid produced during fermentation by the gut microbiota. Feeding a form of butyrate to flies increased their maximum lifespan by 30-50% [40].

Similar life extension properties of butyrate have been observed in worms [41].

One of the primary mechanisms by which butyrate may extend lifespan is by altering the copying of genes that code for longevity-promoting proteins (e.g., glutathione S-transferase and superoxide dismutase) [42].

Internal butyrate levels can be increased via supplementation or by eating more resistant starch and non-digestible fibers that stimulate colonic fermentation.

7) Black Rice

A study in flies found that black rice extract could increase average lifespan by 14% by regulating certain genes important for the antioxidant system (SOD1, SOD2, CAT, Mth, and Rpn11) [43].

People should not consume rice if on a lectin avoidance diet unless it’s pressure cooked.

8) Blueberries

Blueberry extracts given to fruit flies resulted in a 10% increase in lifespan [44].

Another study found that blueberry polyphenols given to worms increased lifespan in a way that was not explainable solely by the high antioxidant content of blueberries [45]

Blueberry extract might increase lifespan by activating certain genes (e.g., SOD, CAT, and RPn11) while blocking others (e.g. MTH) [44].

9) Apples

Fruit flies lived 10% longer when fed a diet rich in apple polyphenols [46].

As with blueberries, this increase in lifespan was associated with the ability of these polyphenols to activate or block certain genes (SOD, CAT, MTH, and Rpn11) [46].

10) Nectarine

Nectarine can enhance lifespan and healthspan by positively affecting glucose metabolism and limiting oxidative damage, as seen in a study in flies [47].

11) Pomegranate

Pomegranate juice increased lifespan in flies [48].

Special Diets

Below, we will discuss some diets that may potentially help you increase your lifespan. Remember to discuss it with your doctor before implementing any drastic changes in your diet. Carefully follow your doctor’s recommendations to avoid nutrient deficiencies and any adverse effects associated with unsupervised diets.

1) Caloric Restriction

Caloric restriction is a dietary plan that reduces total calories (usually by 20-40%) without causing malnutrition.

Studies on species such as yeast, worms, flies and small mammals have demonstrated that long term caloric restriction can, assuming adequate nutrients are present, significantly increase lifespan and reduce the risk of developing a host of diseases [49, 50].

However, no clinical studies have been carried out and the results in monkeys were mixed. While a study found that caloric restriction increased lifespan, another one found it ineffective [51, 52].

Nevertheless, caloric restriction seems to reduce the risk of developing some potentially life-threatening conditions.

Caloric restriction normalized blood sugar levels in a clinical trial on 11 people with type 2 diabetes. It did so by improving pancreatic cell function and increasing liver insulin sensitivity [53].

In rats, caloric restriction lowered blood pressure and prevented heart thickening, suggesting it may help reduce the incidence of heart disease [54].

One study in monkeys showed a 50% drop in cancer rates after caloric restriction [55].

This could be because CR consistently reduces the levels of growth factors, hormones (such as growth hormone, IGF-1, and testosterone), inflammatory cytokines, and oxidative stress markers associated with cancer growth [55].

Caloric restriction also improved the survival rates of mice with lymph cancer by reducing cancer cell proliferation and making tumors sensitive to certain proteins that regulate the death of cancer cells (e.g, Bcl-2) [56].

A study in mice found a correlation between body weight and longevity, suggesting that increased metabolic efficiency from caloric restriction is related to longevity [57].

Caloric restriction may slow the aging process by acting as a low-grade stressor and thereby creating a hormetic response (beneficial response to the low-grade stressor) [58].

One example of this is mitochondrial hormesis, where caloric restriction promotes the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that serve as molecular signals to turn on defense and stress-resistance mechanisms [59].

Caloric restriction might also increase longevity by raising SIRT1 levels while lowering insulin-like growth factor [60, 61].

Longevity researchers agree that caloric restriction is a consistently effective way to increase lifespan in invertebrates and rodents. As a result, a lot of research has gone into finding compounds that can mimic this effect. Many of them have been mentioned in the previous section.

2) Ketosis

Ketosis is a physical state in which the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates from food and burns fat to produce energy. This results in the production of ketones or ketone bodies. The most common way to reach ketosis is to follow a diet with a low-carbohydrate (typically under 50 grams/day) and high-fat intake called ketogenic diet [62, 62].

A long-term (24-56 weeks) ketogenic diet helped lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol in 6 clinical trials on almost 500 obese and overweight people. By reducing these risk factors, the diet can protect against death from heart disease [63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68].

Another way is to take ketone supplements. Ketone supplementation (beta-hydroxybutyrate) extended the lifespan of worms by around 20%. Worms on a restricted diet did not see as dramatic increases in life expectancy, indicating that supplemental ketones act on the same longevity pathways as calorie restriction [69].

As already mentioned, sirtuins help control the balance between cell death, cell survival, and cell reproduction, and play a role in the regulation of metabolism and stress, important factors that affect the process of aging [70].

Ketones produced during ketosis can increase sirtuin activity in brain cells (particularly sirt1) by increasing cellular levels of its cofactor NAD(+) [71].

See here for the best ways to get into ketosis.

3) Fasting

Religious & traditional cultures have long recognized that fasting has spiritual and bodily benefits.

In 1956, a study looking at 60 elderly men and women who fasted every other day for three years found that there were less than half as many deaths and visits to the hospital in the fasted group [72].

Fasting for 2-4 days helped “reboot” the immune system, lowered insulin-like growth factor, helped clear out damaged cells (autophagy), and regenerated new, healthy ones [73, 74].

Long-lived animals and people usually have low insulin. Intermittent fasting improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity [75].

Intermittent fasting increased the lifespan of worms by altering gene transcription (by changing transcription factors KGB-1/AP-1 and DAF-16) [76].

Fasting causes mild stress within the body as it produces free radicals, molecules often linked with aging. This causes the SIRT3 gene to up the production of sirtuins, proteins associated with longevity [77].

Free radicals can actually increase lifespan by acting as low-grade stressors and making the body adapt accordingly (hormetic response). So taking “healthy” antioxidants like vitamin C and E might not be such a good idea for longevity [77].

In rats, periodic fasting protected brain cells against damaging stress. Alternate-day fasting made the rats’ brains resistant to toxins that cause cellular damage [78].

Fasting mice have higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low levels of BDNF are associated with everything from depression to Alzheimer’s [79].

4) Methionine Restriction

Methionine is an essential amino acid. A high amount of methionine is very toxic to both young and adult mammals, and this toxicity far exceeds that produced by the excess intake of any other amino acid [80].

In flies, methionine restriction (by 67%) extended the maximum and mean lifespan by 2.4% and 10.5%, respectively [81].

In rats, methionine restriction (by 80%) increased median and maximum lifespan by 30% and 40%, respectively [82].

Methionine restriction delayed the onset of age-dependent disease and extended lifespan by decreasing body fat and insulin resistance in rats and mice independently of calorie restriction [83, 84].

Although the mechanisms of methionine restriction-induced lifespan extension are not fully understood, a few studies suggested that it acts in a different way to calorie restriction at the molecular level in mammals [85].

5) Glucose Restriction

In worms, glucose restriction increased lifespan [86].

Reduced glucose availability promotes the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), induces catalase activity, and increases oxidative stress resistance and survival rates. These effects lead to “mitochondrial hormesis” [86].

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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