The chance that you’ll be able to place the 100th candle on your birthday cake is mostly in your control. For real. Here’s how to stack the odds in your favor.

Holly Pevzner
June 14, 2021
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Any time local newscasters interview the latest neighborhood centenarian, they always ask the same question: What's your secret to living such a long life? The answers, however, are all over the map. Is it the daily glass of red? The after-dinner walks? The gals and gossip from Sunday bingo? The truth is, you can't boil the key to longevity down to one magic soundbite to share with the morning news team. That's not to say that we have no control over our life spans. We do. In fact, "for the majority of us, genetics only account for about a quarter of our ability to reach a very old age, which puts lifestyle choices in a large role," says centenarian researcher Stacy L. Andersen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine. For instance, cigarette smoking shaves an average of at least 10 years off your life, regardless of your genetic makeup. But quitting before you turn 40 reduces your chance of succumbing to smoking-related disease by roughly 90%, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While disease avoidance is certainly a big part of longevity, it's not the only thing. "Centenarians also maintain good physical and cognitive function into their 90s and beyond, allowing them to remain active and engaged throughout their lives," says Andersen. Never has this longevity sweet spot of staying well and disease-free been more apparent than in the five pockets of the world with the highest life expectancy: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Sardinia, Italy, famously dubbed the blue zones. When researchers examined the local diets and habits of these areas, they found several common threads. "It's all about a collective lifestyle, not a strict diet or workout regimen," says Dexter Shurney, M.D., executive director at the Blue Zones Institute. The best part? You can make blue-zone-inspired lifestyle changes in midlife and still garner a significant longevity advantage, notes a 2016 report in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Researchers found that lifestyle changes alone could reduce mortality by up to 69%. "It goes to show that small changes can really have an impact. And when you start to feel better, you can make bigger changes and add on," says Shurney. Here are eight routes to a longer life.

Up Your Fruits and Veggies

"Centenarians eat a wide array of garden and green vegetables, herbs and fruit," says Shurney. "There's extensive evidence on the health-promoting effects of a primarily plant-based diet." The latest: a large-scale 2021 report in the journal Circulation found that consuming about two servings of fruit and three of vegetables a day is likely the optimal amount for a longer life. In the study, Harvard researchers found that five-servings-a-day folks had a 12% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 10% lower risk of death from cancer and a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease when compared with those who ate just two servings a day. "This isn't that surprising," says Shurney. "Look at it like this: Plant foods on average have 64 times more antioxidant power than meats and dairy. And antioxidants are necessary to protect the body from free radicals, which cause illness by damaging our DNA." While variety is key to getting a healthy mix of nutrients, Shurney notes that plants with deeper and brighter colors tend to have the most antioxidants. In addition, the study found that green leafy vegetables, such spinach and kale, and fruit and vegetables rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, such as citrus, berries and carrots, showed the most longevity benefits. (Starchy veg like peas, corn and white potatoes weren't linked to aiding long life.)

Rethink Meat

"We've known for a while that the more red meat in your diet, the greater your risk of chronic disease and early death," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., owner of KAK Nutrition Consulting and nutrition consultant at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio. Thanks to a 2019 report in the journal Nutrients, we know that even small amounts can have a negative impact on life expectancy. When compared with vegetarians, people who ate roughly 2 ounces of meat a day (that's about half a burger) were 26% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, according to researchers. The association stuck even after adjusting for other risk factors, such as smoking and drinking. The good news is that decreasing the amount of red meat you eat while increasing healthy meat alternatives is associated with a lower mortality risk, notes a 2019 study in the BMJ. Some of Kirkpatrick's favorite meat-for-plant swaps are legumes, quinoa, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and whole soy, such as tofu and tempeh. Making these types of trades has big benefits-even when doing so in midlife, according to a 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Here, researchers found that middle-aged folks who shifted just 3% of their caloric intake from animal protein to plant protein experienced a 10% decrease in all-cause death over a 16-year span. When researchers zeroed in on those who swapped eggs and red meat for plant proteins, they found that their risk of death was lowered by up to 24%. Of note, the long-lived people in the blue zones eat red meat twice a week at most, in serving sizes that equal no more than 2 ounces cooked. At the same time, up to 3 ounces of fish is enjoyed daily.

Move Naturally

You know what's not a must-have in blue zones? Gyms. It's not that those who achieve long life are inactive. Instead, they tend to move about every 20 minutes, according to Shurney. The key here is that they're decidedly not sedentary. "Being physically active is about reducing sitting time by adding movement to your day," says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise. "And while being physically active doesn't necessarily result in things like bigger muscles, it absolutely results in improved health, and it positively impacts longevity." A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that reducing the amount of time you sit throughout the day can increase good cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease-and lowering risk of all-cause mortality. And that's regardless of regular exercise. To work more movement into your life, Jo suggests pairing a physically active task with a common behavior that you already do in your day. "For example, while waiting for your coffee or tea to brew each morning, do some feel-good stretches in your kitchen; or while you're brushing your teeth, alternate standing on one leg; or each time you have a phone conversation, stand up and walk around your house or walk around the block," says Jo.

Eat More Beans

Beans and legumes are unique in that they're both a vegetable and a protein (aka, a meat alternative). Legumes have been dubbed "the most important dietary predictor" of longevity by the National Aging Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, so they get a special shout-out. After all, "beans and legumes, including fava, black and soy beans, chickpeas and lentils are the cornerstone of centenarian diets," says Shurney, noting that those who live in blue zones eat ½ to 1 cup of beans daily. "Nutrient-dense beans are a fantastic plant protein source, which we know helps with longevity. And they're also fiber-rich," says Kirkpatrick. "Fiber, which is also found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is associated with a better gut microbiome, which can play a role in disease prevention." You prevent disease, you live longer. Case in point: folks who ate the most fiber experienced a 15 to 30% decrease in all-cause and cardiovascular-related death when compared with those who ate the least, suggested a 2019 meta-analysis in the journal Lancet. The longevity bull's-eye seems to hover between at least 25 and 29 grams (or more) of dietary fiber a day.

Make Your Grains Whole

You can't really talk about the longevity benefits of fiber without mentioning whole grains, such as amaranth, barley, old-fashioned oats, quinoa and 100% whole-grain bread. (Blue zoners favor 100% whole wheat, rye or pumpernickel; sprouted-grain bread; and traditionally made bakery sourdough over ultra-processed white bread.) Beyond fiber, however, "whole grains contain numerous bioactive compounds and essential nutrients, like magnesium and polyphenols. They all work together to help lower risks of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke," says Kelly Toups, R.D., director of nutrition at Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization. "So it's no surprise whole grains are a blue zone staple." After all, a 20-year study involving more than 100,000 people published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those who regularly ate whole grains had a 9% lower overall death rate and a 15% lower death rate from heart disease.

grandmother and grand daughter embracing on a designed background
Credit: Getty Images / MoMo Productions

Keep Good Company

After a year-plus of COVID-19, the world has realized that seeing friends and family is key to one's mental health. It's also key to longevity. In 2018, Cigna Health researchers found that loneliness had the same impact on one's chance of dying as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. "We know that people who are socially isolated have higher rates of cancer, heart disease and heart attacks than people with more social connections," says Shurney. "This makes the lack of social support and connection a major public health issue." On the flip side, research in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that close relationships and socializing are two of the most important predictors of a long life. While, yes, there's nothing you can do about lockdowns and quarantine, you can still prioritize connections. The National Institute on Aging recommends scheduling time each day to stay in touch with family and friends. If it's safe, plan regular walks or in-person chats. Alternatively, bookmark a specific time of day to email, text, call or Zoom with others.

Change How You Eat

There's a 2,500-year-old mantra that those in Okinawa often say before enjoying a meal. It's "Hara hachi bu" and it essentially means, "Stop eating when you're 80% full." "That doesn't mean stop eating if you're still hungry," clarifies Toups. "Instead, it's about recognizing that hunger and fullness are on a spectrum, and you not being completely full doesn't necessarily mean you're still hungry." For people who aren't used to honoring their hunger and fullness cues, "it can take time to differentiate between the sensations of being ravenous, having gentle hunger pangs, feeling neutral, being satisfied, being full and being absolutely stuffed," says Toups. But it's important, since ignoring that 20% gap between just-right and stuffed is why many people overeat, which can lead to longevity-sapping obesity. A 2018 study in JAMA Open Network found that being obese was tied to a 27% increase in the odds of dying within the 24-year study period. "Some strategies to help recognize when you're at 80% are to eat more slowly, set your fork down between bites, and be mindful and present during your meal," says Toups. (That means no eating while distracted.) Another approach: dine with friends and family. "If you're eating with others, you're nurturing your social network, connecting with others, which helps relieve your stress. And you'll probably eat slower too," says Shurney.

Reduce Processed Foods

It turns out that 86% of food products Americans buy are classified as ultra-processed, according to a 2019 report in the journal Nutrients. "Ultra-processed" encompasses such middle-aisle nutrient black holes as snack foods, sweets and salad dressing. And all of this offers zero favors for our longevity. "For starters, these foods are highly palatable, so you're less likely to be able to control portions and recognize hunger cues to limit overeating," says Kirkpatrick. "When it's hard to control portions, the risk of becoming overweight and obese goes up, which consequently comes with its own set of comorbidities." Also, ultra-processed foods are more likely to contain ingredients that have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. A 2019 report in BMJ found that indulging in four or more servings of ultra-processed foods a day is associated with a 62% increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with less than two servings a day. And for each additional ultra-processed daily serving, mortality risk increased by 18%. While it's hard to let go of all the convenience, Kirkpatrick suggests starting by cooking more at home.

"Centenarians will always report a wide range of 'secrets' to their longevity-from a bite of chocolate every day to working hard to their religious beliefs," says Andersen. "But no matter what, we know that people with healthy habits, such as engaging in daily physical activity, eating a plant-forward diet and avoiding smoking, live on average 10 years longer than the standard U.S. life expectancy." So in the end, the real "secret" is this: Appreciate your life by treating your body and mind well. "And find meaningful ways to savor all of it," says Andersen.

This article first appeared in EatingWell, Anti-Aging.