The best science-backed longevity tips from 2020

By Alistair Gardiner
Published January 26, 2021

Key Takeaways

People in the United States have a shorter life expectancy than almost all other high-income countries, according to the CDC. In 2019, the agency calculated that the average American has a life expectancy of 78.8 years. That falls short of comparable countries like Australia or France, whose residents can expect to live 82.6 years, and for the United Kingdom and Germany, about 81 years.

But living long is not a guarantee. All patients—and physicians—can make lifestyle choices to extend their lives, and each year brings new research to point us all in the right direction.

While morbid news of COVID-19 and its death toll dominated 2020, the past year also saw hope, thanks to new life-expectancy research. Here’s a look at habits to adopt (or drop) for a longer life, based on the latest studies and expert opinions.

Eating well

When it comes to longevity, few are more well-attuned than journalist Dan Buettner, whose book, The Blue Zones Solution, focused on geographic areas whose people tend to outlive the rest of us. His latest book, The Blue Zones Kitchen, zeroes in on the typical diet of these long-living populations.

According to Buettner, patients who want to live longer should eschew meat and instead build a diet composed of 90%-100% plants. On average, Blue Zone residents eat roughly 2 ounces or less of meat, typically about five times per month, Buettner notes. They bust out the burgers for special occasions or add meat for a little flavor to an otherwise plant-based dish. The results? According to his work, vegetarians in Loma Linda (a Blue Zone in California) often outlive their meat-eating peers by up to 8 years.

Consider making olive oil a staple. Buettner found that taking in about 6 tablespoons of olive oil daily appears to cut the risk of premature mortality by 50%.

To extend life, he recommends eating small amounts of fish and opting instead for a daily dose of beans as the key protein source. Blue Zone residents typically eat up to 3 ounces of fish, up to 3 times a week. Beans, on the other hand, are a cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world. Most centenarians eat roughly four times more beans than the average American, Buettner notes, which makes sense, as beans pack more nutrients per gram than any other food on the planet.

When it comes to snacking, Buettner’s research suggests limiting sugar as much as possible. Blue Zone residents consume about the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as others, but only a fifth as much added sugar. A couple of handfuls of nuts daily can fill the void. Blue Zone residents frequently munch down nuts—and Buettner’s research suggests that nut-eaters outlive those who abstain by 2 to 3 years. 

Finally, Buettner warns against sodas. Water is the way to go, but Buettner also points out that many Blue Zone residents drink coffee, tea, and red wine.

Physical activity

Breaking a sweat can also add more years. While research suggests obesity and physical inactivity increase the risks of disease and shorten lifespan, not all researchers agree on what kind of exercise—or how much of it—is appropriate. But two major studies published in 2020 have some answers.

The first study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, examined the association of physical activity intensity with mortality. After following a cohort of more than 400,000 participants over a decade, researchers found that patients who engaged in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week had lower all-cause mortality. The findings suggest that roughly 22 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per day (or 30 minutes, 5 days per week) results in lower risk of early death from conditions like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Participants who opted for more rigorous workouts, like running or high-intensity interval training, stood to extend their lives the most.

That said, the results of a study published in BMJ suggested that people don’t need to push quite that hard to lengthen their lives. Researchers analyzed the habits of more than 44,000 participants and their impacts on longevity. While the study found that those who got 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day lowered their mortality rate compared to sedentary people, researchers noted that just 11 minutes of daily exercise a day can considerably improve longevity. 

Is vaping safe?

Vaping is often considered a harm-reduction technique, but is it actually safe? Last year, several new pieces of research were published that point to the fact that vaping shortens longevity, even in people who’ve never smoked tobacco.

One of these studies, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, compared the impacts to vascular function of vaping with those of cigarettes. Researchers found that the damage caused by vaping was comparable to that of smoking cigarettes—meaning the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a potentially shorter life remain.

Similarly, a study published in JAMA Network Open, looked at the impact of vaping (independent of traditional tobacco use) in a cohort of more than 21,000 otherwise healthy young people. Researchers found that participants who used a vape in the past were 21% more likely to develop a respiratory disease compared to those who had never used. Even more striking, the study found that current vape users had a 40% higher risk of developing a respiratory disease.

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused millions of deaths worldwide in 2020, researchers didn’t abandon the search for the key to longer living. Their work won’t bring back anyone lost to the virus, but it could help physicians and patients build a healthier future—if only we’ll listen. 

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter