It’s official: People are living longer than ever before. In fact, the number of centenarians on the planet is estimated to rise from 500,000 in 2015 to roughly 3.7 million by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. But what sets these people apart from the rest of us?
We know that longevity is influenced by a wide range of factors, many of which are not in our control. For example, the length of your life is partially determined by genetic factors, including genes that influence things like inflammation and immunity. However, studies have shown that genes typically only make up 20%-35% of the pie chart that determines how we age.
A range of other, more controllable, elements and lifestyle choices play into longevity—and some of them may surprise you. Here are three unexpected factors that play a part in how long we live, according to recent research.
How much do you socialize? If the answer is “not much,” you may be taking years off your life, according to a study published in Aging Clinical and Experimental Research.
Researchers analyzed data on 292 centenarians in New Zealand, along with data on over 103,000 elderly individuals with a median age of around 82 years, examining rates of depression, dementia, diabetes and hypertension, smoking, physical activity, and social relationships.
While their findings include some well-known results (centenarians were more likely to be female), researchers also wrote that lower smoking rates and “steady high rates of social engagement were associated with reaching a centenarian status free of common chronic diseases compared with older adults.”
Social engagement is defined as physically leaving your home and interacting with people other than your family members, noted one of the study authors in a release. This can range from activities like going to a concert or playing a sport, to volunteering.
Where you live
When you’re choosing a place to live, longevity may not come into your considerations. But, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, it probably should, because your surroundings may impact how long you live.
Researchers examined data on 144,665 individuals aged 75 or older, who died of any cause in Washington state between 2011-2015. Researchers looked at information on sex, race, education, marital status, and residential location at the time of death.
As with the Aging Clinical and Experimental Research study, researchers found a variety of factors associated with improved longevity. Factors that increased the likelihood of a person reaching 100 years or older included being female, having a higher socioeconomic status, and either being widowed, never being married, or divorced/separated at the time of death. And, intriguingly, researchers found that living in specific areas was associated with longer life.
Residing in an area that could be characterized as “walkable” can add years to your life, study authors reported. Those living in walkable neighborhoods tend to have good access to public transport, healthy foods, hospitals, and other services. These individuals typically walked and biked more, which can help save money and boost physical health. In fact, living in an area like this has been shown to increase physical activity by 30%, according to the study.
Beyond this, researchers found that living among more working-age (15-64 years) people was found to impact longevity, which suggests that living in an urban area as opposed to a rural area may be better for longevity. They posited this may be due to the fact that young people typically leave rural areas for economic opportunities in cities, resulting in less support and fewer services for the elderly who are left in rural communities.
Seeing the sunny side can make life more bearable—and, according to a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it may lengthen your life too.
Building off studies that show optimism is associated with lower rates of chronic diseases, researchers looked at health and mortality data on 69,744 women and 1,429 men, all of whom completed optimism assessments. Exceptional longevity was defined as living to 85 years or older, and results were adjusted for demographic and health factors, as well as the role of health behaviors.
They found that women who scored highest on their optimism assessments lived 14.9% longer than those who scored the lowest. Likewise, men with the highest optimism ratings had a 9.8% longer life compared with men who were the least optimistic. Overall, those who scored highest in the optimism assessments had 1.5 (women) and 1.7 (men) greater chances of living to the age of 85.
Researchers concluded that optimism has a dose-dependent association with long life—independent of factors like socioeconomic status, health conditions, social integration, and health behaviors—and should be considered an “important psychosocial resource for extending life span in older adults.”
It comes down to choices
The bottom line? Don’t think that you have no control over how long you’re going to live. Genes have an impact, but only up to a certain point. And while obvious healthy decisions like eating well, not smoking, and exercising can help lengthen your life, you should also consider staying social into your later years, picking somewhere to live that allows you to take regular strolls, and always looking for that silver lining.