Every so often, I contemplate my mortality. For most of my life, I felt that the typical human lifespan is very short– you’re born, have your childhood, go to school (so far about a short 21 years), get a job and career, work until you retire, turn grey and live for 10-20 more years then you die. “75 years” is often quoted as the average human lifespan. To a child, that seems like an eternity. But to an adult, when time seems to accelerate, the number is scarily short.
But what I’ve now realized is that this is an example of what I call “learned misconceptions.” Just because the conventional view of old age as previously described is something I believed all my life does not make it right. People who believe that we are considered “old” starting at age 60, and are “supposed” to die in our eighties believe this only because it is what they have been led to believe. And what the mind thinks, the body usually listens, which I believe plays a big role in lending validity to this belief– that many people do tend to wind down their lives and die in their eighties.
But what about those few lucky ones among us who live past age 110? And, are not confined to a wheelchair or beholden to taking medications? How do they buck this trend?
I just read a great article on the book The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, a fascinating book by health researchers Friedman and Martin, which examines an eight-decade-long Stanford University study of 1,500 people designed to examine the factors that determine who lives a long, healthy life, and why. I’m glad I did, because it affirmed what I now believe– that you don’t have to “start dying” as you enter your eighties, and that although you cannot stop the advancement of time, you can influence your rate of biological aging by being mindful of the way you live your life.
Here are key findings of the book:
After age 40, your chronological age is actually a poor predictor of how “old” you are.
The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a massive effort that tracked 3,000 people from their 20s to their 90s, concluded that people age at such vastly different rates that by the time they reach 80 or 90, the differences are so marked that birth dates are entirely irrelevant, and after age 35 or 40, the date on your birth certificate is one of the least accurate indications of how old you are.
Every day you get older but the pace at which you grow older varies enormously from person to person. Obviously we don’t have control over the former, but we do have far more control than we think over the latter.
Be a little vain: People who look young for their age live longer. Making an effort to look young and act young can help you stay young. This is consistent with the mind-body theory that “what the mind thinks, the body obeys.”
Older people with positive perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer.
Here are the Five, interesting discoveries of the study:
1) Relationships are the most important thing
When it comes to slowing down the rate of aging, connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change. Hang out with unhealthy people and you are more likely to become unhealthy as well.
In a study led by Derek Isaacowitz, it was found that the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.
2) Be a good person
Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
3) Be conscientious
This means, be conscious of what you know you need to do, and do it. Don’t be too laid back, or “happy go lucky.” Put your mind to the things you do in life, and do it with purpose.
4) Stress isn’t always bad
Believe it or not, the people who work the hardest tend to live longer. The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.
5) Make yourself happy
Here are the tips recommended in the study to stay happy:
1. Watch less TV, engage with the world more often instead.
2. Improve social relations — spend time with friends
3. Increase levels of physical activity — go for a long walk
4. Help others and express gratitude to those who have helped you
5. Take on new challenges to remain fresh and in-the-moment
Laugh a lot. Be happy. Be optimistic. Have lots of good sex. Get enough sleep. Stay out of debt. Forgive.
CONCLUSION: Life doesn’t have to end at 80! Being too concerned about diet and exercise and ignoring the social factors related to longevity is a mistake. Those who live long, happy lives engage with others, have a support network, keep themselves busy with a worthwhile cause, and remain conscientious– they know what they need to do, and follow through. And, they know how important it is to stay happy.