For most of us, one of our life goals is to live a long and healthy life. However, as the old saying goes for many, "life is short." By the time we've retired, there are only so many years we can enjoy ourselves, not to mention the healthy years we have left can be even fewer. Luckily, recent science and studies show that we could dramatically increase our longevity by making a few minor tweaks to our lifestyle. Before we get into these small tweaks, let's look at what we're trying to extend - healthspan and lifespan.
Lifespan is the total number of years you will live, while healthspan is the total number of years you will live in good health. In the modern pursuit of longevity, are we optimizing for healthspan or lifespan? The answer is both. Traditionally, longevity as science looks mostly to increase your lifespan and life expectancy from birth. However, in recent years scientists have been looking more and more at optimizing for healthspan as well. Old age is associated with a much higher chance of practically every chronic disease. Because lifespan and healthspan are closely related, optimizing for both helps us live longer.
So healthspan and lifespan, how do we optimize for them? Here are five things you can do:
A prominent method scientists found that will help augment longevity is caloric restriction. In our process of evolution, we didn't always have our breakfast, lunch and dinner ready on our table when the bell rang. Most organisms developed genetic adaptations to increase the chance of survival and reproduction at times when food wasn't constantly available. Fortunately, humans didn't miss out on this adaptation, and we still have the creatively named "longevity genes'' (sirtuin family genes). When we fast, we are telling our bodies to activate these longevity genes. A meta-analysis of all studies on caloric restriction and lifespan between 1934 and 2012 found caloric restriction increased the lifespan of rats by 14%-45%.
Why intermittent fasting in particular? Why not other types of caloric restriction? Well, this has to do with how we get our energy from eating. There are two types of energy sources our body takes; Glucose (sugars) and ketones (derived from fatty acids). In diet processes, our body prefers to use glucose as our energy source. However, ketones are more efficient for energy production, producing less CO2 for the amount of oxygen used. Our body has a natural tendency to prefer glucose as an energy source. But when we run out of glucose, our body shifts to ketones for energy. The interval of caloric restriction during intermittent fasting helps consume the available glucose and switch our body's energy source to ketones.
Studies found that intermittent fasting is correlated with positive outcomes in a wide range of chronic disorders, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and neurodegenerative brain diseases. The studies also found that intermittent fasting increased cognitive ability and memory in rats. Maybe combining breakfast and lunch every once in a while isn't that bad after all.
Another factor in our longevity comes from our sleep. Studies have repeatedly shown that sleep quality is directly correlated to achieving a long life. A 2014 study from Brazil found that although absolute quality of sleep is comparatively lower among extremely old individuals (over 85 years old) than younger adults; those who make it to old age display a remarkably strict sleeping schedule and a better lipid profile (a clear indication of high persistent sleep quality), suggesting a better sleeping practice over the years. Individuals who made it to old age are also shown to have a proportionally longer duration of N3 sleep, the regenerative phase of sleep, compared to younger adults. This indicates that maintaining the regenerative capacity of sleep is also correlated to our longevity. With sleep science on our side, what should we aim to do with our sleep? Here are our three recommendations:
Firstly, maintaining a strict sleeping schedule is key. A study conducted in Taiwan shows that a sporadic sleep schedule is significantly associated with a deterioration in sleep quality. Unlike what many of us have been taught since childhood, it is more about a stable sleep schedule than sleeping early every night. Second, both extremes of sleep duration (very short and very long) can be detrimental to health. A 2018 review found that both extremes of sleep duration are negatively correlated to health. According to the newest public health recommendation, the optimal sleep time is between 7-9 hours for those over the age of 18. Lastly, optimize your environment for better sleep qualities. According to a Harvard medical school recommendation, the three main environmental factors impacting sleep quality are light, noise, and temperature. To have the optimal sleep quality, reduce the light and noise in your bedroom as much as possible. Some white noise may help you sleep, but ideally keep the volume down. You should also try to keep the room temperature a degree or two lower before you sleep, as lower core temperature helps your body fall asleep quicker.
A great way to boost longevity is by keeping some of your cells young. This might sound futuristic, but cell banking and preserving youth in some of your cells is real. Scientists found that ageing pauses indefinitely if you take a young person's cell and freeze it cryogenically. The cell stays youthful for as long as the frozen condition continues (there is an upper limit at around 1,000 years). When the cell thaws in the future for use, it can function with the youthfulness it was stored with.
Banking your cells can be crucial for your longevity because these banked cells can significantly benefit your healthcare in the future. A high-potential field of medicine, called regenerative medicine, will require cells to regenerate and repair damage in the body. Regenerative medicine opens up possibilities to treat many diseases we currently have no cure for (like cancer and Parkinson's). However, an aged cell likely does not perform as well as a young cell in regenerative therapies. Meaning, to fully take advantage of future regenerative therapies, you will want to keep your cells banked and youthful.
Another way we can optimize for our longevity is by controlling our diet and staying active. Studies found that several general health and lifestyle indicators correlate strongly with lifespan and healthspan.
A study from Harvard University tracked the body mass index, exercise interval, and diet of 73,196 people over a period of 30 years. Researchers in the study found that individuals with a optimized lifestyle have on average 10 years longer for their healthspan - 73.7 years Vs. 84.4 years in women, 73.5 years Vs. 81.1 years in men.
What does an optimized lifestyle consist of? Firstly, try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day with a heart rate of around 120bpm for youth and a heart rate above 95bpm for middle aged and up. Secondly, keep alcohol consumption reasonably low. Doctors recommend 5-15g/day for women, or about 1 glass of wine at 12% alcohol, and 5-30g/day for men, about two glasses of wine. Lastly, try and look at diet quality score. Diet quality score assesses the individual's intake of fat, fibre, variety of vitamins and minerals and general dietary composition. A diet quality score above 8 is usually optimal. You can find a simple questionnaire to track your diet quality score provided by Nature here.
Don't underestimate the impact of lifestyle on your longevity. Our routine choices can accumulate to make a considerable impact on improving our longevity and our healthspan.
Since WHO categorized aging as a disease in 2018, several supplements aiming at longevity have emerged. The supplements primarily target molecules or cellular pathways that have roles in metabolic processes and regulating the cells.
One of the most discussed longevity supplements is NMN. David Sinclair, one of the leading voices in longevity research, is a prominent advocate for NMN. As we age, our bodies begin to produce less NAD+, a molecule that's critically important in our ability to make energy. Taking an oral NMN supplement is found to elevate the level of NAD+ in human cells, which enhances cell survival and boosts cellular repair. Dr. David Sinclair's Havard research team found that an individual at 60 years old taking NMN demonstrated a lipid profile and epigenetic age of 31.
Another commonly discussed longevity supplement is rapamycin. Rapamycin acts on the molecule mTOR, a regulatory molecule of the growth of our cells. Turning down the activity of mTOR has been found to have positive effects on aging. Rapamycin inhibits the mTOR functions in cells, thus enhancing human longevity. Originally developed as an anti-inflammatory, more studies are underway to prove rapamycin's efficacy against aging.
Longevity supplements are generally considered to be in their early stage of development and commercialization. It is too early for us to draw any conclusion now, as only time can eventually prove their efficacy in human longevity. However, to optimize our longevity, it's worth keeping an eye on the latest development in the world of longevity supplements.
Old age and the pain of aging might feel like a long way away. However, as science has proven to us, your day-to-day actions today might have a significant impact on your health 30, 40 or even 50 years in the future. To recap, in this article, we discussed five ways to boost longevity; we discussed intermittent fasting, the process of restricting calories to activate longevity genes. Getting a good sleep and having a good sleep schedule as a way promoting good health. We also discussed banking cells, thus preparing for the future healthcare and staying active and keeping a good diet, slowing down aging. Just as healthcare in general is shifting more toward preventative healthcare, we must also make efforts to prepare for our future.