The six ingredients for a longer, happier life

Physical maintenance is only part of the picture.

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Often, when we discuss health and longevity, we talk about the individual parts rather than the harmony of the whole. 

But it is the combination of the parts that is key, according to Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh, a leading geriatrician from the University of Sydney. Interestingly, although it is important to care for the physical machinery that makes us up, the primary parts that keep our engines humming well into our old age have nothing to do with physical maintenance.

World’s oldest family credits porridge for long life

The 13 Donnelly siblings have a combined age of 1075 years and say porridge for supper and breakfast is the key to their long life.

The first three factors that Singh says can help us live a longer, happier life involve looking after our physical bodies.

Don’t smoke: “Smoking is probably always bad and and stronger in terms of mortality risk than physical activity or diet,” Singh says. It is, however, never too late to quit. Quitting smoking can have immediate health benefits and even for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, improves their chances of successful treatment. 

Be physically active: Activity “covers a multitude of things,” Singh says. Some research has suggested that tennis, swimming and aerobics  are the ideal activities for a longer life. That said, there are nonagenarians runners and 87-year-old gymnasts, while walking, playing frisbee, lifting weights or anything else that takes your fancy are equally as good because what we do is less important than that we do something that gets us moving regularly. 

Eat a primarily plant-based diet rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil. “There is certainly value in certain dietary patterns,” Singh says. “Most of the healthful diets share common attributes of being primarily plant-based protein as opposed to animal – so some animal but not that much. Most of the grains are wholegrains, so there is very little processed foods.” There is also no need to be stingy on the fat, so long as we choose good types. “The Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to have positive benefits on cognition, isn’t low in fat – it’s about 40 per cent fat, but the fat is all extra virgin olive oil.” 

Paying attention to the basics of our health combine to improve our longevity (and mental health), but mean little without our emotional health, specifically the quality of our relationships, our sense of purpose and play.

Be novel and play: One study Singh conducted showed that people, in their 70s and 80s, with mild cognitive impairment who engaged in a new activity were able to change the structure and interconnectedness of parts of the brain to improve their cognitive function. 

“There is room for improvement very very late in life,” Singh says. “Our brain likes to be stimulated by new things and that may be one of the reasons something like high-intensity weight-lifting works for old people, because it’s very novel and they’re doing something physically that they’ve never done before and in addition to the physical adaptation, it is a cognitively stimulating activity because of its novelty, as would activities like learning a new language or playing a musical instrument or learning a new dance.”

Pursue loving, long-term relationships: “If you look at quality relationships and mortality risk… the benefit for mortality far exceeds that of things like obesity and even smoking,” Singh says. “I think we put too much emphasis on the individual behaviours and not enough emphasis on the value of relationships. We are wired not just to want but to need nurturing relationships – and to give them, not just receive them.”

That includes emotional and physical connection with others: Children who don’t experience physical touch have higher mortality rates. “Just touching them makes them live longer,” Singh says. “Equally there are studies in aged care homes – the power of touch has been shown to increase not only happiness but nutritional intake. There is that need for connection throughout life – it doesn’t go away if you have dementia, it doesn’t go away when you’re in a coma.”

Find a purpose – something bigger than you: Studies exploring volunteering or loving/kindness meditation, have fascinating findings. 

“Those things change certain structures in the brain and they change the length of your telomeres which are predictive of longevity and perhaps have involvement in your immune system and your ability to ward off stress,” Signh explains. “There seems to be a biological basis for some of the associations that have been seen… it does seem to be quite biologically plausible that behaviours in social contexts are important for health and longevity.”

There is one caveat, Singh says. Care-giving and volunteering reap physical and emotional health benefits only if they are done without resentment.

“If you volunteer with an altruistic motive, it markedly improves your mortality,” she says, but care-giving or volunteering that is done out of a sense of duty, “increases mortality” 

The central role of love, purpose and play in our longevity and happiness reframe what health means.

“You focus on the degeneration over time of various systems and how to combat that, when in fact it does appear that these attitudes towards caring for others and having a sense that there is a greater purpose to your existence can overcome many of the other physical things going on that you would predict would decrease mortality. It’s quite optimistic in the sense that you’re not really doomed to your genetic predisposition or even the vagaries of what life has brought your either serendipitously or by your own actions. 

“You have this ability, because it does seem to be related to your cortex and your voluntary behaviours and actions, to overcome some of those limitations and live longer and have less negative reactions to physical and emotional stressful events.”

Maria is on the panel for the University of Sydney’s health hacks forum on Wednesday, 20 September

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