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Why do Some People Live Longer than Others?

03/08/2016 10:54 | Updated 04 August 2016

We all want to live healthier, longer lives. Every year brings with it new developments that have the potential to help us live longer, healthier and happier lives - some of these are exciting, some less exciting... Not all claims turn out to be accurate or helpful, but there is advice that is backed up by solid research that suggest we really can benefit from a change. These are the most recent discoveries in healthcare to remember, and how we can use them to make our lives healthier.

Apples

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what about the undertaker? Well, a large Australian study showed that women who eat an apple a day had a lower risk of dying - more than a third lower. Some experts argue that they're as good, if not better than statins in reducing cholesterol and risk of heart attacks and strokes. Where's the goodness in the apple? Take your pick: they've got magnesium, potassium, vitamin c and flavonoids, as well as soluble fibre, which reduces your risk of cancer, including colon and bowel cancer.

Life tip: include an apple in your five a day. Oh, and eat the skin.

Alcohol

Here in the UK we've now got one of the lowest recommended alcohol limits in the world - down to 14 units per week, and for the first time it's the same for both sexes. Dame Sally Davies and her team brought the limit down after new research showed that even light drinking increases the risk of breast and bowel cancer, and has smaller health benefits than were previously believed. But, as the life insurance industry has long known, non-drinkers don't live as long as moderate drinkers. What medical experts can't agree on is why. Is it because alcohol is good for you - the biggest benefit being to prevent atherosclerosis? The other school of thought denies any health benefits of alcohol: non-drinkers may have other traits or habits that shorten their lives, such as being former drinkers who had already come to harm from the bottle.

Life tip: don't feel guilty about a glass of wine - unless you're pregnant.

Cholesterol

It's been accepted wisdom for decades that diets rich in polyunsaturated fat protect against heart disease. Until last month, that is, when previously unpublished data (hidden in an attic) from one of the original trials 45 years ago was reported. The Minnesota Coronary Experiment had followed 9423 people in residential care or mental health homes. Residents were randomly given either a 'traditional' diet rich in saturated fat, or a diet where saturated fat was replaced with vegetable oil rich in linoleic acid (an omega-6-polysaturated fat). The people given vegetable oil had lower cholesterol, but did not live longer. In fact, the people who continued to eat saturated fat had lower mortality. Four similar studies had similar findings: replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may shorten, not prolong life. Last year, US dietary guidelines removed dietary cholesterol and total fat as risk factors worth worrying about.

Life tip: include saturated fat in your diet. How much, we don't know, but a little cheese and butter won't hurt.

Coffee

People who drank three to five cups of coffee per day have about a 15 percent lower risk of premature mortality compared to people who didn't drink coffee. How? Coffee drinkers have a decreased risk of stroke and may be less at risk of type 2 diabetes, too. There's speculation about what ingredient may be of benefit - lignans, quinides and magnesium have been proposed - but strangely it doesn't seem to be the caffeine, since drinking decaffeinated coffee has similar benefits. There was also no benefit of coffee for smokers.

Life tip: have that espresso instead of that sugary drink. But not with a cigarette.

Exercise

The benefits of regular exercise are not in dispute. It increases longevity, it reduces your risk of heart attacks by 50% and some malignancies, prevents dementia and is as effective an antidepressant as antidepressant medications. But if you're middle-aged and unfit, be wary of sudden intense exercise. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Life tip: get your 1,000 steps in every day. If you're middle-aged, get fit and get checked before starting intensive exercise.

Obesity

It's no secret that obese people don't live as long. The most famous longevity studies followed up 5209 adults living in Framingham, Massachusetts between 1948 and 1990. At age 40, those with a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or over - the obese - lived 6 to 7 years less than their normal-weight counterparts. The merely overweight (BMI 25 to 29.9 kg/m2) lived about 3 years less than normal-weight non-smokers. Don't overdo it on the dieting though - life expectancy for the underweight (BMI less than 20) is lower than for BMI 20-25.

Life tip: don't be fat, you'll live longer.

Spices

The Spice of Life? A huge Chinese study followed up 3.5m people for over seven years and found the risk of death was consistently lower for those who ate spicy food at least once a week than those who didn't. The spicier the diet, the greater the reduction: up to 14% in those who had spicy food on 6 or 7 days of the week. The benefit was observed in both men and women and was true for a wide variety of causes of death, including cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases. It is still early research, and other factors may be at play so it is too early to generalise. But the greatest demonstrated benefit was in non-drinkers - disappointing news for those who like a beer with their curry.

Life tip: don't be afraid to spice it up.

Sunlight

The medical profession has long advised against sunburn due to the risk of melanoma. If you have fair skin than burns but never tans, many dermatologists therefore will advise you to avoid any direct sun exposure, and beauticians warn of the aging effects of ultraviolet light. Many are taking this advice. But are we losing out if we shun the sun?

Last month [March 2016] a Swedish study of nearly 30,000 women over 20 years showed that women with active sun exposure had a life expectancy 0.6 to 2.1 years more than those who avoided sunlight. They had a lower risk of both cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular disease. The gain in longevity is equivalent to the gap between the smokers and non-smokers. But sunlight may not be directly beneficial. Vitamin D is activated only when the skin is exposed to sunlight, and low vitamin D levels previously been linked with higher mortality. Perhaps people who seek out the sun are more likely to live longer for other reasons. They may be happier (which lengthens life), more physically active or in some other, yet-to-be defined way, just healthier.

Life tip: Go outdoors more. It will do you good for all sorts of reasons. Don't burn.

A final word

For all these tips, a health warning: longevity studies show an association between these factors, not a cause. (The study of substituting fats is an exception, since patients were randomly assigned to the different diets, and so other causes were cancelled out). It might be that people who have a 'healthy' diet and get out more live longer for altogether different reasons that we don't yet fully understand. Perhaps their other lifestyle choices, or even their temperament, may be their advantage. The best advice? Moderation in all things, apart from smoking.

Jamie's Super Food - 14 foods that could help you live longer

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