Secrets to longevity: interplay among lifestyle factors

Secrets to longevity: interplay among lifestyle factors

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We may not be able to move to Greece, but we can modify our lifestyle for the better

Most of us would like to achieve longevity, as long we also maintain a good quality of life. We are finding, however, as I mentioned in my Sept. 20 article, that calorie restriction alone may not be the route to achieving this goal.

There was a very interesting article published in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 28 entitled, “The Enchanted Island of Centenarians,” by Dan Buettner, a modern-day explorer and educator who focuses on longevity. Of course, there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to read an in-depth article on this subject. He wrote about a man named Stamatis Moraitis who was born on Ikaria, a small Greek island.

At this point, you may ask yourself, “What does this have to do with me, since there are numerous stories about the Greek lifestyle?” Well, Moraitis immigrated to the United States around 1943 and lived initially in Port Jefferson. He eventually moved to Florida, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than a year to live. In response, he decided to move back to Ikaria to get his affairs in order.

Approximately 35 years after his diagnosis, he is 97 years old and fully functional, with no signs of lung cancer. One might say he overcame advanced lung cancer. The skeptics at this point are probably thinking that he was misdiagnosed initially and never had cancer. However, he had received multiple second opinions from physicians, and they all concurred on his diagnosis.

So what was on this island that helped him not only recover from his disease, but live a long and prosperous life? His recovery involved a multitude of factors, such as diet, social support, sleep, physical activity and regular sex.

While his story is anecdotal, we have seen these same results in studies looking at other societies, such as the Okinawans, the Seventh-day Adventist community of California and some provinces of China. What does the research tell us?

Diet and physical activity impact

The Women’s Health and Aging Studies I and II, one of the most recent studies on lifestyle modification, suggests that substantial disease and mortality risk reductions are possible. There were 713 participants ranging in age from 70 to 79 (J Am Geriatr Soc. 2012;60(5):862-868).

The results showed that women who were more physically active, compared to those who were least active, were significantly less likely to die with a 72 percent reduction in five-year mortality risk. And in terms of diet, there was a 50 percent reduction in death for women in the highest third of fruit and vegetable consumption compared to the lowest third. This is important, since the most rapidly expanding age group in the U.S. is those 65 and over (Demographic Res. 2000;3:1–20).

To confirm fruit and vegetable consumption in the different groups, the researchers measured carotenoid levels in the participants’ blood. Carotenoids are phytochemicals, or nutrients, found in a plant-based diet. This is the same technique I use to measure whether my patients are achieving a vegetable-rich diet. The Ikarians’ diet is also composed of vegetables, with an emphasis on greens and a variety of beans and a de-emphasis on dairy and other animal products. According to Dan Buettner, who spent time in Ikaria, most Ikarians walked up at least 20 different hills throughout the day.

The role of napping

While we have heard conflicting reports about napping, recent studies suggest that it may have beneficial effects. In the Greek portion of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) trial, there was a 34 percent reduction in the risk of death from heart disease when taking a siesta (midday nap), regardless of frequency and duration (Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(3):296-301). This study involved 23,681 participants. For men, those who were working saw more significant results in mortality reduction than those who were not. In the Ikarian society, most of the individuals took naps in the middle of the day.

The influence of social connections

Who you associate with may have a significant effect on your health. In the Framingham Heart Study, the chance of becoming obese (BMI of greater than 30) increased if you had a friend who had become obese (N Engl J Med. 2007;357:370-379). In this study, which involved 12,067 participants, there was a 57 percent increased risk of obesity if your friend was obese well. The authors describe this phenomenon as a social contagion, much like how a virus spreads. Among Seventh-day Adventist communities, Buettner observed that there is a positive social contagion: at picnics you see a predominance of fruit and vegetable dishes, rather than the typical American barbecue with beef or chicken.

Though there are no formally published studies on the Ikarian society, there are studies on other societies with increased longevity, such as the Okinawans, the Seventh-day Adventists and Sardinians. Unlike many of the other society studies, which are mainly international, the Seventh-day Adventists studied live in Loma Linda, Calif., outside Los Angeles.

In a study looking at approximately 34,000 Californian Seventh-day Adventists, those at age 30 had a considerably higher life expectancy than other Caucasian Californians (Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(13):1645-1652). For men, there was a 7.28 year increase in life expectancy, and for women, there was 4.42 year advantage. The factors that play a role are similar to those that are important to the Ikarians: diet, physical activity and not smoking.

What do all of these different societies have in common? They eat a high-nutrient, plant-rich diet, physical activity is a given and strong societal networking is integral to their lifestyles.

Though we may not be able to emigrate to Ikaria or many of the other societies with greater lifespans, we can modify our lifestyles to emulate many of the benefits. We can improve our diet, make sure we get enough sleep – naps should be encouraged, rather than frowned upon – and strengthen our social connections. These changes will help to foster prevention and reversal of chronic disease and potentially increase our longevity.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.  For further information, go to the website and/or consult your personal physician.