Posts Tagged ‘Longevity’

What Determines Longevity Remains a Mystery

November 19th, 2014 at 3:04 pm by timigustafson

More people than ever live past 100 years of age. So-called “supercentenarians,” those who reach 110 and beyond, are rising in numbers all over the world, 75 individuals to date and counting.

What are the causes of such extreme longevity and what is different about these ancient folks that lets them outlast normal mortals by decades? A new study tried to find answers by investigating the genetic traits of a small group of participants between the ages of 110 and 116.

By sequencing the genomes of 16 women and one man, all of whom were living in the United States at the time of the study, the researchers hoped to find genetic commonalities that could help explain their extraordinary life spans. Unfortunately, their findings were inconclusive.

“Our hope was that we would find a longevity gene,” said Dr. Stuart Kim, a professor of biology and genetics at Stanford University and lead author of the study report to Reuters. “We were pretty disappointed.”

Regardless of his study’s meager outcome, Dr. Kim remains optimistic that more research will eventually be able to identify genetic causes as the driving force behind longevity.

“This marks the beginning of the search for key genes for extreme longevity,” he said. “These supercentenarians have a different clock where they are staying really highly functional for a long time. We wanted to know what they had. It’s pretty clearly genetic.”

The reason why it is hard to pinpoint specific genetic characteristics that may be responsible for greater life expectancy is that the genetic effects are likely very complex and involve mechanisms in the body that are not yet fully understood, he said.

While experts have long debated whether nature or nurture is ultimately the decisive factor in how well we age, whether some of us are born to last longer or whether diet and lifestyle play a role, it is clear for Dr. Kim that genetic make-up outdoes anything we can add in terms of healthy living. Among the participants in his study he found no especially health-promoting eating or exercise habits. About half of them were even long-time smokers.

Also, there is no evidence that the achievements of modern medicine are extending the maximum life span today’s humans can hope for in comparison to their ancestors, according to Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco and author of the gerontology classic, titled “How and Why We Age” (Ballantine Books 1994).

What advances in medical science have produced, however, is a greater possibility to delay the effects of illnesses commonly associated with old age.

Both social changes like greater hygiene, reduced rates of smoking, better diet, and other personal health and lifestyle choices, as well as medical intervention have increased for many more people the number of years they enjoy in good health and vigor and decreased the time spent in illness and decline. This phenomenon is known as “compression” because it compresses age-related susceptibility to diseases into a shorter period. It is that growing vulnerability and lessening strength to fend off illnesses that make us become more frail and eventually succumb.

And here is where nurturing can help us to fare better. By adhering to a healthy diet, controlling weight, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and so forth, we are indeed able to fortify our natural defenses and, as Dr. Kim suspects, slow down the clock.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Extreme Longevity – Progress or Worrisome Prospect?

May 10th, 2014 at 7:45 am by timigustafson

Alexander Imich is officially the oldest man alive. A few weeks ago he turned 111, still living independently in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is not the currently longest-living human, though. 66 women surpass him, including the eldest, Misao Okawa, a 116-year-old lady from Japan, as recently reported by the New York Times. But despite of the noteworthiness of these examples, extreme longevity is no longer a rare exception but is becoming a growing trend.

According to the most recent data collected by the Census Bureau, over 53,000 people are now 100 years and older in the United States alone.

The “oldest old” – those who are 90 and beyond – are the fastest expanding segment of the U.S. population. Today there are nearly two million nonagenarians. That number will likely increase to 10 to 12 million by mid-century, a prospect that raises multiple concerns in terms of healthcare and retirement issues.

A study titled “90+,” conducted by the University of California, Irvine and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has followed this demographic since 2003. As reported by 60 Minutes, the news magazine on CBS, it is the largest study on the subject of old age to date, and includes clinical, pathological, and genetic research, involving more than 1,600 participants.

While the study is still ongoing, it has already produced some surprising results. For example, putting on a little extra weight late in life does not as much harm as previously thought and may even have some benefits. Eating right is still important, but adding more nutrients, e.g. by taking vitamin supplements, seems to have no noticeable effects. On the other hand, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee can indeed promote healthy aging and increase longevity, the researchers found.

Mental health, however, is less assured, no matter what action is taken. Over 40 percent of nonagenarians suffer from dementia, and about half of those are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The causes are not fully understood yet, but experts say that lack of physical activity may be a contributing factor. Naturally, most 90-year-olds do not or are not able to exercise rigorously.

What we learn from the longest living among us is that they generally make healthy diet and lifestyle choices, but they don’t obsess over them. Education, access to healthcare, and standard of living are clearly important components, but so are good marriages, friendships, and an active social life. Purpose and meaningful work also play a role. Communities, neighborhoods, and even climatic and geographic differences seem to contribute to longevity. In other words, it is not one thing or set of rules people who age well live by – but usually a whole package that fulfills their needs and lets them thrive over long periods of time.

We are witnessing an extraordinary growth of aging populations throughout the world, and the current trends will likely accelerate in the future. How we handle the challenges that come with longer life expectancy, demographic changes, age-related disease, and many others, depends on how well we understand the natural aging process and meet its demands. Extending the human life span further and further, just because our medical and pharmaceutical advances enable us to do so, may not be the best way to go – it may not even be the right way.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Love Can Preserve Health and Add Years to Life

May 3rd, 2014 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson

Love may not be all you need, but a loving relationship offers countless benefits and can even be a lifesaver. Loving someone and being loved in return does not only make us happier, it also motivates us to take better care of our health, reduces our stress, and can extend our lifespan, according to studies on the effects of marriage and other long-term relations on people’s wellbeing.

One such study found that marriage can improve a patient’s survival chances after heart surgery. Another concluded that married men seek medical help sooner when they experience symptoms of heart problems than their single counterparts.

Married people in general are more likely to have regular medical check-ups and other preventive healthcare measures, and when they get sick, they are better looked after than if they were on their own. That lowers their risk of dying from a catastrophic event like a heart attack or stroke, according to Dr. Clare Atzema, a researcher at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto, Canada, and lead author of one of the studies.

But it doesn’t have to come to such extremes before the benefits of being loved and cared for kick in. Studies have shown that people who are in stable relationships tend to engage less in risky behavior and are less prone to violence than those who are unattached. Similar effects are seen with regards to smoking and alcohol and drug use.

Especially young males seem to benefit from feeling valued, which can help avoid accidents and other calamites caused by recklessness, says Dr. Michael Murphy, a professor of demography at the London School of Economics, England, and author of one study on the subject.

None of this means that love makes us more virtuous or benevolent, but it does say something about the changes we undergo when connecting with another human being. The desire to get close to someone can bring out the best in us. We want to please, and so we are willing to do whatever it takes to make ourselves attractive to our love interest. If our feelings are returned, we benefit in multiple ways, not only emotionally but physically as well.

Scientists have found that people in strong relationships manage stressful events much more successfully than others who are alone or whose attachments are dysfunctional.

The effects of being in a relationship can cut both ways, the researchers of one study say. Especially in young marriages, both spouses have to figure out how to cope with the inevitable adversities life throws at them. If there is mutual support and care, it will make their bond stronger; if not, they will likely be torn apart. Only time can tell which path they will take.

Love, of course, also renders us extremely vulnerable. Breakup, divorce and widowhood are among the most devastating experiences we can go through. A broken heart can destroy our zest for life and even lead to our own demise. Loneliness and social isolation, especially at an advanced age, are known to contribute to depression and mental decline.

The ways we express love and form relationships have changed many times and will continue to do so. What remains is our need for love as a life-giving force that makes us whole and keeps us well. And that, nobody can do without.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Eat Less, Live Longer?

April 2nd, 2014 at 10:58 am by timigustafson

Finding ways to extend the human lifespan by observing certain diet and lifestyle regimens has been a centuries-old quest. Indeed, our average life expectancy has dramatically increased over time, at least in the wealthier parts of the world, due to improvements in hygiene, health care, and food supply. Yet science has still not been able to provide definite answers to what we can do to live longer.

Studies on longevity in connection with diet and lifestyle have been undertaken as early as the 16th century, most notably by one Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian who was known for his hard partying until his health failed him before he reached 50. In his autobiographical book, “Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life,” which is still in print today, he claims that a radical change from unrestricted indulgence to Spartan simplicity not only restored his health but also added many more years to his life. He died at 98 – an exceptionally old age at his time.

A more systematic approach to studying the effects of diet on longevity was taken in the 1930s when scientists noticed that lab mice put on a calorie-restricted diet lived up to 40 percent longer than their abundantly fed counterparts. But still nobody knew the exact causes of the dramatic lifespan increases, let alone whether the findings were applicable to humans.

Two relatively recent studies tested independently from each other the impact of calorie restriction on health and mortality in rhesus monkeys. Both came up with opposite results.

In 2009, a study report issued by researchers from the University of Wisconsin claimed that a calorie-restricted diet regimen did actually favor longevity in the monkeys. But three years later, scientists at the National Institute of Aging laboratory in Baltimore who conducted similar studies found no evidence that providing their monkeys with less food made any difference in terms of lifespan, as they documented in their own report.

A subsequent dispute between the two research teams over their differing study results continues today.

Regardless of what animal tests are (or are not) able to show, it remains unclear how the outcomes can be made useful for humans.

To understand the effects of calorie restriction, one has to be careful to distinguish between undernutrition, in which all the essential nutrients the body needs to function properly and stay healthy are provided – albeit by using fewer calories, and malnutrition, where at least some nutrients are missing, potentially resulting in harmful deficiencies over time. The latter is certainly not recommended and is not likely to have any health benefits, including for longevity.

In the light of what we know about the health effects of diet to date, we can say with reasonable certainty that moderate calorie restriction in support of weight control is healthy and in any case preferable to excessive weight gain, one of the largest health threats looming today. To what extent that implicates life expectancy remains to be seen. More important to realize, however, is the fact that health-promoting diet and lifestyle choices contribute to the quality of life at any age and become even more significant as we grow older.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Outlook on Life May Influence Longevity, Study Finds

January 22nd, 2014 at 2:07 pm by timigustafson

That staying physically and mentally fit is important for healthy aging is old news. But how our attitudes can also influence how long we live is not as well understood. Now, a new study from England concluded that being happy, enjoying life, or at least having a sense of contentment may play a much larger role in the way we age than previously thought.

For the study, researchers from the University College London monitored physical and mental functions and also the emotional states of 3,200 male and female participants, all over the age of 60.

Those who reported having fun, doing things that gave them pleasure, maintaining an active social life, etc. were found to develop fewer impairments and showed slower declines compared to those who were less upbeat.

In fact, differences in attitude seemed to produce remarkable results. People with a lower sense of well-being were three times as likely to end up with health problems as they got older than those whose outlook remained positive.

Not surprisingly, those suffering from chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and depression tended to enjoy life the least, which obviously did not help improve their condition either.

The study also found that the happier people were not necessarily younger, richer, or even free from illness. The influence of their state of mind on their aging process persisted independent of these other factors, although financial security did apparently play a role, but only to a certain extent, according to Dr. Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care in the Faculty of Population Health Sciences, and British Heart Foundation professor for psychology in London, England, and author of the study.

These latest findings confirm those of another study he published in 2011. Back then, researchers found that participants who considered themselves the happiest could reduce their mortality risk by an astounding 35 percent compared to their least happy counterparts.

Five years into the study, the differences in terms of health status and mortality rates already showed. The happier people were overall healthier and aged better, even when taking other factors into account like gender, education, marital status, and financial situation.

What was methodically different in these two studies compared to others on the subject is that the researchers asked participants to rate their happiness level several times on one particular day, instead of having them answer general questions about their usual state of mind. By focusing on concrete situations and events and by observing specific responses, the researchers say they were able to discern attitudinal differences much better than they would have been by conducting surveys on a wider range of issues and relying on recollections of participants over longer periods of time.

While it remains undetermined whether positive emotions play a key role for longevity or are just one factor among others, there seem to be clear indications that how people feel about their lives at any given moment can have a significant impact.

Of course, what constitutes happiness is not easily defined. Some may say that people who seem outwardly grumpy or melancholic may not necessarily be devoid of pleasure or satisfaction. It could be just a matter of individual personality or how they behave socially. How emotions are expressed can also depend on cultural particularities.

One study from Austria found that more than momentarily occurring feelings, a deeper and lasting sense of contentment and gratitude that comes with growing maturity may produce the greatest benefits, including in terms of health and longevity.

The least we can take away from these findings is that people should take their moods more seriously, said Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor for social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University.

“I think people sort of undervalue emotional life anyway. This highlights the idea that if you are going through a period where you’re constantly distressed, it’s probably worth paying attention to how you feel – it matters for both psychological and physical health,” she said.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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For Healthy Aging, Just Keep Moving

January 8th, 2014 at 2:50 pm by timigustafson

The healthier and more physically fit you are, the better your chances will be to live a long and active life. While that may be true to a large extent, researchers now say that you don’t need to be a senior athlete to reap benefits from your physical condition. It may be enough to do just a little bit every day to keep you going. The rest is just icing on the cake, but it won’t make a decisive difference in how well you age.

A recent study from Sweden found that a generally active lifestyle, even without regular exercise sessions, can promote heart health and longevity. So-called “background activity,” the usual wear and tear your body undergoes as you navigate your day, has all too often been disregarded or underestimated in clinical studies on the importance of physical exercise in older people, the researchers said.

Whether someone exercises rigorously for half an hour or runs errands all day doesn’t make that much of a difference. What matters more is that there are no long periods of time sitting near motionlessly while watching television, reading, or doing work on the computer. A lifestyle that is excessively sedentary for whatever reason is the real culprit when people age badly, not only in physical but also in mental terms.

The difference in likelihood of dying from a heart attack or stroke between the most and the least active participants in the study was roughly 30 percent, which is substantial.

“These are fascinating findings,” said Dr. David Dunstan, head of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the study. “But [they are] not really surprising since other studies have looked at […] the detrimental relationship between excessive sitting and mortality outcomes,” he said to Reuters in response to the study’s publication.

What makes sitting so detrimental is that it prevents the muscles from contracting and causes decrease in blood flow, which reduces the efficiency of many body functions, including nutrient absorption, he added.

Even moderate exercise such as walking up the stairs, cleaning house, or carrying grocery bags across the parking lot can help strengthen muscles, including the most important of all, the heart muscle. For this reason, healthcare providers should encourage especially their older patients and those suffering from heart health problems not only to exercise regularly but also to sit less and move around whenever they have the chance.

Heart health is not the only concern scientists have when contemplating potential damages from lack of exercise. Prolonged sitting itself increases the risk of all causes of mortality, independent from activities like running or visits to the gym, another study found. Researchers from Harvard University concluded that sitting for several hours daily can contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes and certain forms of cancer, especially colon cancer in men.

People, like office workers, who have little choice but spending much of their time sitting should at least take regular breaks to walk around the building or office park to stretch their legs. Retired folks who have more control over their schedules should not sit at home reading or watching television but get out in the fresh air as often and as much as possible.

The good news is that increasing one’s activity level can be done at any stage in life. Numerous studies have confirmed that staying both physically and mentally engaged not only can extend life expectancy but also improve the quality of people’s later years. At any rate, it’s an investment worth making.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss, a Bad Idea

March 5th, 2013 at 4:47 pm by timigustafson

A new diet has become all the rage in Britain and is now making landfall on our shores as well. It’s called the “Fast Diet” and millions of weight loss candidates already swear by it.

Like all commercial diet programs, this one promises quick results without much effort and little changes in established eating habits. Followers can eat anything they want for five days but then have to undergo a fasting period of 48 hours where they cannot consume more than 500 to 600 calories per day.

The authors, Dr. Michael Mosley, a medical journalist, and Mini Spencer, a food and fashion writer, claim they both have experienced amazing weight loss successes themselves while experimenting with various forms of intermittent fasting. They also believe their approach can promote overall health and even longevity.

The idea of submitting oneself to periods of food deprivation is nothing new, of course. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did it, although perhaps not voluntarily, and many religions recommend it as a ritual for cleansing, both physically and spiritually.

“Voluntarily abstaining from eating for short periods of time will allow you to eat what you like, most of the time, and get slimmer and healthier as you go,” the authors proclaim on their website. “The joy of the Fast Diet is that the side-effects are all good,” they say.

But are they?

Even if its true that our bodies are genetically programmed to endure periods of famine, as our forbearers were forced to with regularity when food supplies ran scarce, that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to disrupt your metabolism every so often just to shed a few extra pounds in a hurry.

For example, when the body is subjected to severe calorie restriction, it goes into a different metabolic mode where it switches from burning carbohydrates (glucose), its preferred fuel, to burning fat. This may at first sound like a good idea since body fat is what dieters want to get rid off. However, if this process continues for too long, it can lead to a state known as ketosis.

When fat stores become the primary source for fuel, weight loss will occur – but not without side effects. During ketosis, the body builds up substances known as ketones, which can cause a number of health problems. Loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness, irritability, tiredness and bad breath are among the milder symptoms. More serious consequences include dehydration, gout, kidney stones and even kidney failure.

For healthy individuals, short-term ketosis may not carry serious risks. However for diabetics, restricting carbohydrates in their diet may give rise to complications. In extreme cases, ketone levels can become so elevated that a situation develops where high blood sugar is met with a severe shortage of insulin. This is known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). The results, if not immediately treated, can be fatal.

Many followers of weight loss diets are plagued with one or more of these conditions. Experimenting with one’s metabolism, especially when done without supervision by a medical professional, can only make matters worse.

Last but not least, there are the long-term implications to be considered. Are we to believe that a five-day period of no dietary restrictions followed by two days of disciplined fasting is a viable option for most people? It seems to me such a regimen bears a strong resemblance to many of the crash diets that may produce quick results but inevitably fail over time.

In response to this latest diet craze, Britain’s National Health System has posted a warning on its website that says: “Despite its increasing popularity, there is a great deal of uncertainty about IF (intermittent fasting) with significant gaps in the evidence.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Can Marital Bliss Make Us Healthier? (Emphasis on Bliss)

December 5th, 2012 at 12:36 pm by timigustafson

Do married people live longer, healthier lives than their single counterparts? This is not an issue that came up only recently, e.g. in connection with the increasing acceptance and legalization of same sex marriage or statistics that show unmarried people outnumbering married ones for the first time in America’s history. In fact, as far back as in the mid 1800s, scientists have investigated the potential benefits of marriage, not only in terms of economics and social status but specifically for health.

A British epidemiologist named William Farr was one of the first to study what he called “conjugal condition,” by which he meant the impact of marital status on people’s health. He found that married couples had on average longer life expectancies than the unmarried or the widowed. His findings, although now outdated in methodology and scope, still hold and have been confirmed by multiple studies on the subject that is known as the “marriage advantage”.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to credit marriage itself as the sole source of such benefits. Back in William Farr’s days, as today, it is tempting to exaggerate the importance of the institution while underestimating the difference that quality and character of a marriage makes, says Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer for the New York Times/Well blog. “The mere fact of being married, it seems, isn’t enough to protect your health,” she says.

In fact, clinical studies have found that being in stressful relationships or marriages can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease. In other words, you can actually die of a broken heart, quite literally.

Marital distress can be a chronic stressor, concluded one study that focused on couples facing problems early on in their marriages. Among other effects, some spouses showed “poorer immunological responses,” meaning their immune system weakened, leaving them less protected against any number of diseases.

And it doesn’t have to come to open conflict to diminish the advantages that may or may not come after tying the knot. No matter how happy and excited couples are at the outset, wedded bliss has a limited shelf life, writes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in a recent op-ed article on the issue in the New York Times. “New love seems nearly as vulnerable […] as a new job, a new home, a new coat and other novel sources of pleasure and well-being,” she says. “The special joy wears off and [newlyweds] are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness.”

So, is there any chance for lasting marital bliss with all its promises? There can be, according to Dr. Lyubomirsky, if couples stick it out and get over the hurdles that inevitable come when reality sets in. What sometimes happens is that spouses rediscover each other once the kids are grown and out of the house. So-called empty-nesters have a chance to fall in love all over again, but this time on more solid ground and with fewer expectations. That can be healthier and still enhance their overall well-being.

Of course, there are no specific rules how to keep the proverbial fires going or rekindle them if necessary. What often goes missing as marriages endure is an element of surprise and variety, says Dr. Lyubomirsky. Eventually routines dominate our lifestyles and we settle for the status quo. We know who we are and think we know all there is to know about our partners. While familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, it certainly can foster a growing degree of indifference.

This is where couples can and should become creative and engage in activities both partners enjoy to bring back a bit of excitement into their lives. The curiosity and keen interest in each other they once had when love was young does not have to be lost. On the contrary. Some say, those who play together, stay together. So, let’s explore…

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Both Marriage and Divorce Can Cause Weight Gain

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Enhancing the Quality of Life Wherever We Can

October 31st, 2012 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson

For the longest time, there has been nothing but bad news coming from Greece: An economy in complete shambles, high unemployment, drastic tax hikes and cutbacks in social services, unrest in the streets, a society at the brink of collapse. And yet it is precisely in this region where people seem to live longer, healthier lives than about anywhere else on the planet. What’s their secret?

Based on years of research, Dan Buettner, best-selling author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons in Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic Society, 2008), and two of his colleagues found that the inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaria were reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do.

“Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia.” By contrast, Buettner says, almost half of American seniors show signs of Alzheimer’s by the age of 85.

Despite of its remoteness and rugged, mountainous landscape, the island has been known for centuries for its health-promoting climate and soothing hot springs. A slow-pace, leisurely lifestyle is still prevalent among the people here who savor tasty meals and long afternoon naps. Time seems to stand still – most villagers don’t even wear watches.

Many of the young people who once left the island in search of better paying jobs in the cities have returned, disillusioned with their fading prospects. Because of high unemployment rates, some have no choice but to move back in with parents and grandparents, but others see the lifestyle of their forbearers as a viable alternative.

Besides tourism, small-scale agriculture is the only industry on Ikaria. When it comes to food supply, most families are self-sufficient. Gardening and tending to livestock fills the day that starts late in the morning and ends with dining and socializing with family, neighbors and friends.

The latter is as crucial as the diet the Ikarians adhere to. The social structures might turn out to be even more important, says Buettner. The cultural attitude that honors and celebrates old age keeps seniors more engaged in their communities. Studies have shown that the concept of retirement, common in industrialized countries, actually reduces life expectancy. Such “artificial punctuations” in life, as he calls it, deprive retirees unnecessarily of a sense of purpose and meaningful existence.

Another puzzling phenomenon is that Ikarians also live longer than other islanders in the region who share a comparable environment. Obviously it’s not one specific thing that sets these people apart, says Buettner, but rather a host of “subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work” such as a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, lack of stress and time pressure, daily physical activity through walking and manual labor, and being part of a functional community. In other words, it’s the high quality of life that results in the extraordinary longevity.

Obviously, not everyone can move to an idyllic island and grow vegetables, milk goats, bake bread and snooze the afternoon away. But what we all can do is to stop once in a while and consider whether our days really have to be as hectic and exhausting as they often are. Perhaps we would be better off if we took regularly inventory and separated what’s necessary from what just crept in on us.

We don’t have to aim at living forever. Longevity itself doesn’t have to be the primary goal. Being around a few years longer is not worth the effort if we’re only getting more of the same. A better quality of life, on the other hand, is something we can always strive for at any time and anywhere.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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The New Great Divide: Longevity

September 26th, 2012 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson

The United States of America have often been called a divided nation, separated by race, class, political affiliation, values, you name it. Now, one study has found that we are also drifting apart in terms of life expectancy. While the better-off can hope to live longer than ever, the rest falls behind and may even die at a younger age than their parents.

Educated white males seem to have the edge on longevity. Conversely, the least educated and often poorest Americans, regardless of gender or race, are moving in the opposite direction. The average life expectancy for them has fallen by four years since 1990.

The disparities are most dramatic between highly educated white men and the least educated black men, about 14 years, according to Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study report.

These widening gaps within our society have lead to “at least two Americas, if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership,” said Dr. Olshansky.

The causes behind these trends are not altogether clear, although unhealthy lifestyles like alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, poor diets, obesity and lack of health care coverage are among the most likely factors.

A separate study predicts that obesity, along with multiple related diseases, will continue to rise across the nation, but especially in states with the poorest populations. The report, sponsored by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), concluded that the numbers of diet and lifestyle-related illnesses could increase tenfold by 2020 and double again by 2030.

Currently, more than 25 million Americans suffer from diabetes, 27 million from chronic heart disease, 68 million from hypertension and 50 million have arthritis. Every year, almost 800,000 have a stroke, and about one in three deaths from cancer are related to weight problems, poor eating habits and physical inactivity.

While many Americans are becoming more health-conscious, the majority continues on a dismal path. “This study shows us two futures of America’s health,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo, president and CEO of RWJF. “At every level of government, we must pursue policies that preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs,” she said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”

Treating obesity and related diseases already costs an estimated $147 to $210 billion annually in health care, and these numbers will increase by another $48 to $66 billion if current trends persist, according to TFAH. The only way to change course is “to invest in obesity prevention programs that match the severity of the problem,” said Jeff Levi, TFAH’s executive director, at a news conference for the study release. The report included a series of policy recommendations such as swift implementation of existing legislation (e.g. the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) as well as creation of additional prevention strategies and action plans.

Government can definitely play an important role in the fight against the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Thomas A. Farley, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Government regulations are a justifiable option when they lead to preventing excess calorie consumption and obesity-related health problems and deaths, he wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In this country, we have long treated lifestyle choices as personal matters that should not be regulated or interfered with, even if they produce undesirable results. It’s a part of our individualistic culture. There is much to be said for that, but, as it is becoming increasingly apparent on so many levels, our attitudes have consequences, and sometimes they make the difference between life and death.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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