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Feature: 10 Unusual Ways to Extend Your Life

Feature: 10 Unusual Ways to Extend Your Life

We’ve heard it a thousand times before: The best bet for living a long life, is eating well, not smoking, exercising regularly and … bearing twins.


Have Twins

It might not come as a surprise- this only benefits the women – but it is interesting nevertheless. A 2011 study revealed that mothers of twins who were born before 1870, lived longer after menopause and were more fertile than single-child-only moms during that time.  Twinning is winning? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, the authors explain that having twins doesn’t extend one’s lifespan. In fact, it’s the other way around: healthier women have an increased chance of delivering twins.

Demographer Ken R. Smith went through the Utah Population Data Base to analyze  data of 4,603 mothers of twins and 54,183 mothers that gave birth to one child at a time. Smith says many people today “try to make themselves live healthier, longer lives. But there’s a certain aspect of how long you’re going to live and how healthy you’re going to be that is innate — basically affected by your biological makeup.”

This innate toughness, however, is less relevant in present-day America. The results show that for mothers of twins who were born after 1870,  the annual risk of dying after age 50 is not significantly lower than for moms who didn’t have twins. A woman’s innate robustness — the factor that made twins more likely — was  apparently more important before 1870 during pioneer times. “When you’re a tougher woman, that toughness is more readily apparent when you are tested by adversity,” Smith says.

Read (non open access) study
Robson, S., & Smith, K. (2011). Twinning in humans: maternal heterogeneity in reproduction and survival Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278 (1725), 3755-3761 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0573


Avoid Lethal Co-Workers

Occasionally, we all are confronted with co-workers we don’t necessarily like. For most of us, this simply means not inviting him or her to after work drinks. For others, it can result in early death.

In May 2011, researchers at TelAviv University published a longitudinal study that revealed the severe impact the workplace has on our lifespan. They looked at the medical records of 820 adults who were followed for 20 years, from 1988 to 2008.  The study’s depressing conclusion: people with little to no “peer social support” at work were 2.4 times at likely to die during the study; even when other mortality factors such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure, alcohol consumption, smoking, exercise and education level were taken into account.

For women in positions of power the results turned out even worse: having high levels of control and decision-making authority increased the risk of early death for women. In other words, their health status was improved when they had no say over their work day. A possible explanation for this, according to the researchers, is that women in charge are constantly shifting between home and the office. Should they stay late to finish work? Will they still be able to pick up the kids? This freedom, it turns out, can even compound the stress of the unfriendly workplace.

Read (non open access) study
Shirom, A., Toker, S., Alkaly, Y., Jacobson, O., & Balicer, R. (2011). Work-based predictors of mortality: A 20-year follow-up of healthy employees. Health Psychology, 30 (3), 268-275 DOI: 10.1037/a0023138


Stop Eating

This may sound familiar, but we’re not talking about you getting off the couch and not eating that chocolate cake. What we mean is: cut your food intake by at least 25 percent.

The theory has been around forever; by severely restricting calorie intake the expected lifespan increases. How it works:  much of the damage due to aging in the body is caused by the metabolic process of converting food into energy. By limiting food intake,  the core body temperature lowers and the process of aging is slowed down.

A growing body of evidence now supports this theory – researchers are already able to double the lifespan of lab rats through a 30 to 50 percent calorie restriction. Two studies conducted on rhesus monkeys show that a limited food intake can extend a lifespan, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and slow the rate of muscle loss.

Recently, scientists were able to prove that calorie restriction also leads to a lower core temperature in humans. For six years, the research team at Washington University School of Medicine compared core body temperatures of 24 people who had practiced calorie restriction  – they cut their food intake by 25 percent or more and took nutritional supplements – to 24 others who ate a standard Western diet. “What we don’t know is whether there is a cause/effect relationship or whether this is just an association,” says lead author Luigi Fontana. “But in animal studies, it’s been consistently true that those with lower core body temperatures live longer.

Read open access study
Soare A, Cangemi R, Omodei D, Holloszy JO, & Fontana L (2011). Long-term calorie restriction, but not endurance exercise, lowers core body temperature in humans. Aging, 3 (4), 374-9 PMID: 21483032


Booze Up

At first glance, drinking booze doesn’t seem to be the best advice to those who aim to lead a long and healthy life. 

The consumption of alcohol increases our risk of cancer, dementia and liver disease, to name a few. The less you drink, the longer you live, right? No. Several longitudinal studies have shown that people who don’t drink alcohol tend to die before the ones who do.

In August 2010, the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research published a study that again confirmed that abstaining from alcohol increases the risk of dying. But this time the researchers controlled for ex-alcoholics; all the participants had babtained from alcohol  throughout their lives. While 69 percent of the abstainers passed away during the 20-year study, only 41 percent of the moderate drinkers died.  And what was even more amazing:  the heavy drinkers within the group also outlived the abstainers –  61 percent of the heavy drinkers died during the time span of the study.

How is this possible? The most important reason seems to be that most of us don’t like to drink alone. In the last decade, several researchers have found that humans physically need to be connected to others in order to stay healthy, just as we need food and water.  Having a social life to many of us means meeting with friends or family and enjoying a few drinks.  So by drinking we indirectly avoid social isolation, and by reducing loneliness, we extend our lifespan.

Read (open access) study
Holahan, C., Schutte, K., Brennan, P., Holahan, C., Moos, B., & Moos, R. (2010). Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 34 (11), 1961-1971 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01286.x


Stress itself doesn’t kill you. It does, however, worsen pretty much every disease you can get. Several studies show that in developed countries, psychosocial factors such as stress are the most important variable in determining a person’s life expectancy.

A few years ago, psychologist Sheldon Cohen reviewed the scientific literature that connects stress to disease to get a more general overview. His article was somewhat unsettling: Cohen found that stress is a contributing factor in many human diseases, and in particular depression, cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS. “Stress increases your risk of developing disease, but it doesn’t mean that just because you are exposed to stressful events, you are going to get sick,” said Cohen,

How does stress influences the development of disease?  Cohen said there are two likely pathways. One is behavioral — people under stress sleep poorly and are less likely to exercise;  in other words, they tend to have a bad lifestyle. Stress also triggers a response by the body’s endocrine systems, which release hormones that influence many other biological systems, including the immune system.

To make things more complicated; not all stress is bad stress. One of the findings of the Longevity Project,  a ground-breaking study that followed 1500 kids for over eight decades,  was that some types of stress can even affect health in a positive way.  Continually productive men and women that participated in the study lived much longer than their more laid-back counterparts. So as long as you love your job, even if it’s stressful at times,  you can never work “too” hard.

Read (non open access) study
Cohen, S., & Williamson, G. (1991). Stress and infectious disease in humans. Psychological Bulletin, 109 (1), 5-24 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.109.1.5


Don’t Go to War

They might not tell you this when you sign up for duty, but even if you do make it home safe, going to war will take years off your life.

In the study ‘The Lifelong Mortality Risks of World War II Experiences’,  a team of psychologists analyzed the lives of 834 men, 38 % percent of who had served in World War II – at home or overseas. According to their findings, the participants who were sent overseas and who had been exposed to combat felt one more side effect later in life: they were 1.3 times as likely to have died during the time span of the study than the participants who hadn’t faced battle, but did go overseas. Compared to the soldiers who stayed at home, the men sent overseas were more than one and a half times as likely to die.

The study proves that the scars of war do not only occur when a soldier is confronted with violence. Long-term separation from friends and family, as was experienced by the men who were sent overseas, is also harmful.  In order to explain why these men lived shorter than their peers who stayed home,  researchers investigated three potential post-war mediating factors: education, mental health, and heavy alcohol use in 1950. Mental health, as is turned out, did not affect the length of a former soldier’s life. Lower levels of education – many soldiers started duty at a young age – and heavy drinking did. Unfortunately the psychologists did not have any data about their subjects’ alcohol use before the war started. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the soldiers started drinking as a response to their war time experiences, or if they had already been heavy drinkers.

Read (open access) study
Elder GH, Clipp EC, Brown JS, Martin LR, & Friedman HW (2009). The Life-Long Mortality Risks Of World War II Experiences. Research on aging, 31 (4), 391-412 PMID: 20161074


Go Shopping

Longevity through shopping. Appealing as this may sound to most of the women; retail therapy appears to benefit older men the most.

Recently, a group of Taiwanese researchers analyzed the shopping behaviors of 1850 elderly (Taiwanese) people who were living independently at home.  In 1999, participants were asked how often they went shopping, with options ranging from “never” to “every day”.  Factors like age, health, lifestyle, financial status and level of education were ruled out as variables.

In the following decade, the researchers tracked the lives and deaths of the participants of the study.  As it turned out, those who shopped daily were 27 percent less likely to die than those who never went shopping. The men benefit the most: male daily shoppers were 28% less likely to die, compared with female shoppers who were 23% less likely to die.

The authors acknowledge that frequent shopping can be an indicator of good health, in other words: daily shoppers are already more healthy to begin with. Still, the act of shopping  is important too, the authors point out. For the elderly in the study, shopping was not just about buying things, but also a way of getting daily exercise. In addition, most of the people reported doing their shopping together with friends or family. Feeling connected to others – as we’ve already discussed –  influences longevity in a positive way.

Read (non open access) study
Chang, Y., Chen, R., Wahlqvist, M., & Lee, M. (2011). Frequent shopping by men and women increases survival in the older Taiwanese population Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health DOI: 10.1136/jech.2010.126698

Don’t Be Cheerful

Why so serious? Because it will add years to your life. In contrast to what many people think, the happy-go-lucky kids actually have a shorter life expectancy than their more neurotic, shy and conscientious peers.

Another outcome of  the earlier mentioned Longevity Project, the eight decade personality study, was that being cheerful as a kid doesn’t guarantee longevity. In fact,  the data revealed that the participants who were sociable and happy throughout childhood were more likely to engage in risky behaviour as adults, such as drinking and smoking.

On the other hand, the subjects who were conscientious, thoughtful, and cautious across time often lived into their 80s and 90s. Most of them were also health conscious, meaning that they were trying to eat well and stay in shape. In addition, they were better able to adapt to inevitable negative life events, such as the death of a loved one.  In addition, the study found that conscientious people developed better social relationships and accomplished more at work. “Because of those qualities,” says author Leslie Martin, “they tended to get nice opportunities in life, and so they went on to live some of the most exciting and interesting lives of anyone in the study.”

Get ‘The Longevity Project’ here  


Don’t Sleep Too Little or Too Much

Ever seen The Machinist? This film about an industrial worker who hasn’t slept in a year, played by an emaciated Christian Bale, shows in a pretty vivid way what sleep deprivation does to ones health. Research shows, however, that not getting enough sleep isn’t the only writing on the wall – sleeping too much shortens someone’s lifespan as well.  

In the study ‘Sleep and Mortality’, conducted by a team of Finnish researchers, over 21,000 twins were followed for about 22 years. As twins both tend to grow up in the same environment and have the same, or similar, genetic-make ups, the scientists were able to isolate these factors’ influence on longevity. They also controlled for bad habits, such as drinking and  smoking, and sociodemographic factors, such as marital state and education.

The results:  sleeping less than 7 hours a night or more than 8 hours a night meant having an increased risk of early death.  For women who were short sleepers, that increase was 21% (men: 26%) and for long sleeping women, the increase was 17% (men: 24%).

While it’s not fully clear why both “long sleepers” and “short sleepers” had a higher death risk, the reasons are likely diverse, according to the study’s lead author Dr Christer Hublin. For example,  short sleepers include people who just naturally sleep for a relatively short time, as well as people with insomnia. Meanwhile, people who tend to sleep long hours may also have underlying health conditions, or may simply need that much sleep. Optimal sleep varies by individual. If you sleep through the night and don’t have bouts of excessive sleepiness during the day, Hublin noted, “then your sleep is quite optimal.”

 Read (open access) study
Hublin C, Partinen M, Koskenvuo M, & Kaprio J (2007). Sleep and mortality: a population-based 22-year follow-up study. Sleep, 30 (10), 1245-53 PMID: 17969458

Just Do It

Most studies connecting sex to health do not necessarily encourage you to hit the sack more often. HIV, teen pregnancies… Is there anything to gain from having sex? Fortunately, there is.

First of all, having sex boosts the immune system, according to a 2007 study. During the experiment, a sample of 112 college students was divided into four categories depending on sexual frequency: None, Infrequent (less than once a week), Frequent (one or two times a week) and Very Frequent (three or more times a week).  In addition, saliva samples were collected and analyzed to determine the levels of immunoglobulin A,  an antibody that is used by the body’s immune system.

Having sex frequently, as it turns out, means having higher levels of immunoglobulin A in the body and thus, being less prone to disease.  Bad news if you fall within the Very Frequent group:  getting it on three times a week doesn’t prevent you from the flew.  Nor does having sex one time per week, or never. Other important factors, such as the length of a relationship or the level of sexual satisfaction, did not influence this outcome.

So sex can help improve your immune system, but does it also boost lifespan? Another study, conducted on 918 men aged 45­ to 59, claims that it does. The researchers were able to link the frequency of a man’s orgasm to his expected lifespan: the mortality risk was 50 percent lower in the group with high orgasmic frequency than in the group with low orgasmic frequency. Coronary heart disease in particular, was a more frequent cause of death for the more frigid participants.

The researchers explain their chosen topic by suggesting that “there may be more exciting issues for the public than determining exactly how many servings of fruit and vegetables a day may confer enhanced health, or discovering that smoking is even worse for people than was once thought.” We totally agree.

Read open access study
Davey Smith G, Frankel S, & Yarnell J (1997). Sex and death: are they related? Findings from the Caerphilly Cohort Study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 315 (7123), 1641-4 PMID: 9448525

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