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The Secret to Living a Long Life

by Dr. Douglas Barton, M.D., Pediatrician 08/03/2009

Not too long ago, I was asked by a colleague to review data on how and why people die. This was a review to look at how certain diseases affected life span. We were hoping to help physicians look at their patients from a different view point. The goal was to help them realize just how severe their patient’s illnesses were. What I came away from the study with, though, was a better understanding of how to live as long as genetically possible.  You see, when it comes to longevity, there are only four questions you need to answer. 

First, what do you eat? Your diet affects everything about your body. Your weight, your cholesterol levels, your insulin levels, and a variety of cancers. A simple rule is that the more natural stuff you eat, the better for you. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are absolutely key. Fish and dairy products are critical in moderation. There is a lot of question regarding the value of other meats, but most of us need protein and iron, so an argument in favor of them can be made. Eat them only in moderation. There is also clearly evidence that less is more. People who eat less (other than those who are intentionally or unintentionally starving themselves) live longer.

Second, do you exercise? The benefits of exercise are far-reaching. Heart health, brain health, and energy levels all depend on regular exercise. I’ve probably talked too much on this ‘blog about exercise, but it’s that important. Get your heart rate above 140 for an hour or more 4-6 days a week in order to derive maximal benefit. If you can do this with a brisk walk, then go for a walk. Those of you in better shape will need more vigorous, intense exercise. It is also clear that short bursts of higher intensity exercise mixed in (interval training, weight lifting, etc) will increase basal metabolic rates, leading to more weight loss.

Third, do you smoke? The first two questions have to do with things you need to do to live long. This third is something you need to NOT do to live long. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, both first-hand and second-hand, are the most important things to remove from your life if you expect to live for a long time. Just think of all the dinners out you can enjoy with the money you will save!

Finally, we come to an issue that didn’t come up in my research, but has been adequately documented in a variety of studies...your “spiritual” health. By this I’m not necessarily referring to church attendance and religious affiliations, although these are a part of the issue. More importantly, how do you attend to your inner self and how do you relate to the wider world around you? Studies have made clear that our relationships, the way we deal with stress and the way we relate to ourselves affects longevity. All of these are aspects of our spiritual health. Activities that fall into this category might include religious services and activities, periods of meditation, gatherings with close friends, and maintaining a healthy marriage.

So, you see, the secret to living a long life is not really a secret. What do you eat? Do you exercise? Do you smoke? Do you tend to the relationships in your life? Honest answers to these questions will give your physician a very good idea of whether or not you are at risk of dying early. Fortunately, you can modify the answer to each of these questions with a good dose of willpower and persistence. Good luck in your search for good health.




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