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 May 02, 2018
How to live longer, according to science

 The road to a long life is littered with hype. There are the usual suspects, like pricey pills and supplements, as well as the peculiar, such as infusions of blood from young mice or standing-room chambers pumped with sub-zero temperatures.

And then there's science.

As is frequently the case, the real ways to improve your health happen to be mundane. Thankfully, though, that also means you wield a significant amount of power over these factors.

In a new study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, researchers pinpointed five lifestyle factors that appear to be linked with a significantly longer lifespan, judging by the outcomes of two long-term studies that involved about 123,000 adults.

All factors are things that can largely be changed, like quitting smoking or eating healthier. In the studies, women who adopted all five factors enjoyed roughly 14 extra years of life, on average, compared with their peers who adopted none of them; men got an average of an extra 12.2 years.

Keep in mind that these are averages. These conclusions do not mean that suddenly putting all five factors into practice will lengthen your life by a decade. All we can say definitively, judging by this research, is that people with these traits tend to live longer than people with few or none of them.

With that in mind, here are the five factors:

At least 30 minutes of daily cardio exercise

Cardio exercise is an all-natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against age-related cognitive decline. In other words, it's the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have.

A wealth of recent research suggests that cardio --- any type of exercise that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period of time --- has a significant and beneficial effect on the brain.

"Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart," read a recent article in the Harvard Medical School blog Mind and Mood.

Most research suggests that the best type of aerobic exercise for your mind is anything you can do regularly and consistently for 30 to 45 minutes at a time, bringing it in line with the latest study findings.

Eating like a Mediterranean

It often seems like there can't be a single best diet for your health.

But a growing body of research suggests that a meal plan focusing on vegetables, protein, and healthy fats has key benefits for losing weight, keeping the mind sharp, and protecting the heart and brain as you age. The new study bolsters that research, finding that eating this way is also linked with living longer.

As with drinking, dietary habits were self-reported, but the study's general findings are supported by dozens of previous studies. Researchers looked at aspects of previously agreed-upon standards for healthy eating, including high intakes of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains; healthy fats like those from fish and olive oil; and low intakes of red and processed meats, sugary beverages like soda and juice, and trans fats and salt.

Never smoking

Smoking kills.

No other habit has been so strongly tied to death. In addition to cancer, smoking causes heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Smokers inhale burned tobacco and tar along with toxic metals like cadmium and beryllium, and elements like nickel and chromium --- all of which accumulate naturally in the leaves of the tobacco plant.

So it's no surprise that the latest study found evidence that abstaining from cigarette smoking for life was linked with living longer. But if you've already smoked, the research still has good news: Both quitting and cutting back were also linked with positive outcomes related to life expectancy.

"Smoking is a strong independent risk factor of cancer, diabetes mellitus, CVDs, and mortality," the researchers wrote, "and smoking cessation has been associated with a reduction of these excess risks."

Sticking to a healthy body weight

When it comes to quickly assessing the health of large groups of people, a measure called body mass index, or BMI, can be helpful. Generally speaking, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered within the "healthy range" for healthy adults over age 20, according to the CDC.

Because of this, it makes sense that the latest study used this BMI range to define what they considered an "optimal" body weight. Essentially, they found that people who fell within that BMI range tended to outlive people who fell outside of it and were either overweight or underweight.

From an individual perspective, however, BMI is far from a perfect means of gauging your overall health. The 1830s-era measure does not take into account a number of key health factors, including overall body fat, gender, muscle composition, or the amount of fat you're carrying around your middle, also known as abdominal fat. Abdominal fat (as measured by your waist circumference) is emerging as a key alternative to BMI because of its strong links with heart health and diabetes. Plus, it's really easy to do.

Drinking no more than 1 to 2 alcoholic beverages a day

Several studies attempting to pin down the precise relationship between drinking and overall health have come up short, with often conflicting results.

These studies can be problematic because they include small research samples or rely on people to accurately self-report their drinking habits. Another big problem is that what most of us consider "moderate" drinking is really far from it: According to the National Institutes of Health, moderate drinking is one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. Up to a third of Americans regularly exceed these levels.

That said, some previous research has linked such "moderate" drinking with beneficial outcomes, including a lower risk of certain diseases like diabetes.

The new study again relied on people's self-reported alcohol habits, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the researchers concluded that one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men was linked, on average, with a longer life.