Perhaps you think you stand no chance of clocking up a century. You know that longevity depends in large part on having the right genes, and one glance at the family tree may reveal that yours just won't pass muster. If so, think on this: Centenarians are the fastest-growing demographic group across much of the developed world.Assuming there hasn't been a miraculous Methuselah mutation in the human genome in the past hundred-odd years, we can draw only one conclusion: The way we live is stretching our life spans. So, what are the secrets of a long and happy life? New Scientist plunders the emerging science of longevity to find out how you can maximize your tally at the final checkout without compromising any urges you might have to dance in the aisles on the way there.1. Go for The BurnBy Graham LawtonHow's this for an elixir of youth: an X-ray, a mild case of sunburn, a couple of beers and a sauna. If you think all that would leave you feeling anything but youthful, think again. Many researchers believe that small doses of "stressors" such as poisons, radiation and heat can actually be good for you -- so good that they can even reverse the aging process. This counter-intuitive effect, called "hormesis," was once considered flaky, but in recent years, it has been shown to extend longevity in yeast, fruit flies, protozoans, worms and rodents. If the findings extend to people, it could stretch the average healthy human lifespan to 90, says biologist Joan Smith-Sonneborn of the University of Wyoming, Laramie.
How so? Stressors seem to kick-start natural repair mechanisms, including heat-shock proteins and DNA-repair enzymes, to fix the damage they have caused. If this damage is not too severe, the repair systems may overcompensate, building up enough oomph to repair unrelated damage as well. And if you accept the idea that damage equals aging, this is nothing less than rejuvenation.The big unanswered question is at what dose does an otherwise-harmful agent become beneficial? Clearly, too much radiation or poison are bad for you. However, there may be a safe way to trick your body's repair mechanisms into overdrive. Smith-Sonneborn and others suspect that the life-extending effects of exercise are also down to hormesis. She proudly practices what she preaches with an exercise regime that she says stresses her body to just the right level to get the optimum response. "I'm 70 and I have the bone density of a 35-year-old," she says. 2. Don't Be a LonerBy Helen PhillipsBeing sociable looks like one of the best ways to add years to your life. Relationships with family, friends, neighbors, even pets, will all do the trick, but the biggest longevity boost seems to come from marriage or an equivalent significant-other relationship.The effect was first noted in 1858 by William Farr, the British founding father of demography, when he penned (with quill) that widows and widowers were at a much higher risk of dying than their married peers. Large statistical studies carried out since then suggest that marriage could add as much as seven years to a man's life and two years to a woman's.
So how does it work? The effects are complex, affected by socioeconomic factors, health-service provision, information distribution, emotional support and other more physiological mechanisms. For example, social contact can boost development of the brain and immune system, leading to more robust health and less chance of depression later in life. People in supportive relationships may handle stress better. Then there are the psychological benefits of a supportive, kindly partner. Elderly people who hear loving positive words are more sprightly in step and less likely to request a do not resuscitate instruction when admitted to hospital than those who hear negative comments.A life partner, children and good friends are all recommended if you aim to live to 100. The ultimate social network is still being mapped out, but as Christakis says: "People are interconnected so their health is interconnected." 3. Consider RelocationBy Caroline WilliamsThe world is dotted with longevity hotspots where the number of centenarians exceeds 10 in 100,000. But why? Perhaps the locals are genetically primed for longevity. It could be something in the water. Or it may simply be that these are statistical flukes -- places were oldies outnumber youngsters, so increasing the proportion likely to pass the 100 mark. Whatever the reason, the very existence of hotspots raises the question of what sort of environment is most conducive to a long life.
While small doses of radiation and toxins can be beneficial, a neighborhood humming with either is an obvious no-no. There are also some more subtle environmental influences you should avoid if you want to live long and prosper. A recent study of elderly residents from a poor area of St. Louis, Mo., found that factors such as low air quality and dirty streets tripled the likelihood of their suffering from disabilities in later life. Likewise, a survey by Scottish newspaper The Scotsman in January found that people living in the poorest suburbs of Glasgow had a life expectancy of just 54 -- three decades shorter than people in wealthier areas.There is general agreement, however, that your physical location is less important than the personal environment you create through your behavior. You could up sticks and move to the Japanese island of Okinawa, the world's No. 1 longevity hotspot, but a better bet might be to live life the Okinawa way. "We boil it all down to four factors: diet, exercise, psycho-spiritual and social," says Bradley Willcox, a researcher with the Okinawa Centenarian Study. 4. Make a Virtue Out of ViceBy Helen PhillipsOne of the most informative studies of healthy aging to date has been conducted at the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Mankato, Minnesota. The nuns there, around one in 10 of whom have reached their hundredth birthday, teach us that a healthy old age is often a virtuous one -- which means no drinking or smoking, eating healthily and in moderation, and living quietly, harmoniously and spiritually. But clean living is not to everyone's taste. Besides, what is the point of living to 100 if you can't enjoy a few wicked indulgences? Assuming you will have some vices, the trick is to choose them wisely.
The idea that one glass of wine a day is actually good for you is now ingrained in the popular consciousness. Some say that wine is what underlies the "French paradox," the unexpectedly low rate of heart disease in the Mediterranean population. Wine does contain fruit antioxidants, but many of these chemicals are also found in the raw fruit. Beer too has its health lobby. The research literature is rather at a loss to explain these effects, or even to agree that they exist. While the issue is still in doubt, however, is it worth the risk of not drinking? Whatever your pleasure, the great news is that pleasure itself is good for you. Really good. Not only does it counteract stress, it also causes our cells to release a natural antibiotic called enkelytin. Whether it's chocolate, coffee, having a tipple or a flutter, a spot of sunbathing (with suncream), a romantic (or more carnal) encounter, or another form of sinful pleasure, think of it as self-medication. Just make sure that if you have a vice, you enjoy it. 5. Exercise the Little Grey CellsBy Helen PhillipsYour best shot at living out a century with an active enough mind to know about it is probably to become a nun. Not only are there many centenarians among the Minnesota nuns studied by David Snowdon, of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, but some of them also seem very resilient to the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Not prepared to take holy orders for the sake of your continuing mental health? Then you had better be smart in the first place. By our mid-20s, our mental faculties have already reached their peak in terms of reasoning, spatial awareness and memory. After that, things start to decline. The best way to get around this is to start with some excess capacity. Study after study has shown that intelligence, good education, literacy and high-status jobs all seem to protect people from the mental ravages of old age and provide some resistance to the symptoms, if not the brain shrinkage, of dementia. Brain researchers and doctors are starting to refer to it as brain or cognitive reserve.
All this helps explain the remarkable mental health of those centenarian nuns, who fill their advancing years with both physical and mental activity, from gardening and crosswords to reading, walking, conversation and knitting.
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Source: Health & Wellness