You’re not alone if you’re having trouble navigating the huge amount of longevity “facts” out there. What’s actually true, and what’s just a myth? Here are our top 9 myths surrounding longevity and the science-backed facts debunking them.
Despite the remarkable extension of our lifespans and the accelerated advancements in longevity (a truly fantastic achievement), the subject of longevity continues to evoke intense debate, with conflicting information being spread.
Naturally, as with many globally considered topics, there are some misconceptions. For example, the myths and ‘facts’ state that longevity depends solely upon factors like genes, diet, exercise routine, or other socioeconomic indicators. The truth is, most of the notions that circulate the web currently (and even some old beliefs passed down through decades) don't really align with the latest scientific research.
In this article, we'll list 9 common myths about longevity and bust these myths one by one—all backed with science—to find out the real truth. This gives us all some solid direction to enhance our longevity effectively.
Longevity refers to the experience of living a long and healthy life. It encompasses both the duration of a person's life and the quality of their well-being as they age.
Another way to look at longevity is by considering it as the condition wherein an individual surpasses the typical lifespan they’re expected to have. Within the framework of longevity, three fundamental principles can be identified:
- Prolonging the duration of your life.
- Enhancing your health as you age and promoting a longer period of disease-free living (referred to as healthspan).
- Managing and even reversing the hallmarks of the ageing process.
Myth 1: Longevity Is Only For The Elderly To Be Concerned With
Here’s a surprising fact: Even little things like not sleeping enough could make you 12% more likely to die prematurely.
But these consequences aren't really apparent in our youth. Our perceived sense of being indestructible can make many of us think that only older people should be concerned about longevity. The myth is that it’s not until we’re getting on in age that we need to even consider how to optimise longevity.
Fact: Starting to focus on longevity as early as you can increases your lifespan.
People of all ages should be concerned about longevity. During our youth, the choices we make and the habits we cultivate lay the foundation for our future well-being.
Think of it this way: Just as carefully nurturing a seed leads to a strong tree, cultivating healthy habits and prioritising well-being in youth can have profound implications on one's later years.
So, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, it's smart to build good habits early on. Plus, some health issues that can make you live shorter might show up sooner than you think, like heart problems or cancer.
Science tells us that extending our life can and should start as early as possible. Benjamin Gompertz, an actuary and mathematician, empirically found a mortality law in 1825 that fits human mortality statistics better.
The Gompertz law implies that the mortality rate increases exponentially with age after childhood diseases are overcome (around age 25). If you decide to start living a healthy life early on, you're giving yourself a better shot at stretching out the good times.
Myth 2: Longevity Is Mostly Determined By Genetics
This myth originates from a study that shows identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) have a much closer correlation in lifespan than fraternal twins (who share only 50% of their genes).
This has brought about the belief that genetics plays a significant role in determining how long you live. Additionally, when you believe that everything is predestined in life, including lifespan, this can often lead to self-fulfilled prophecies. This might influence your behaviour, leading you to rely just on genetics alone rather than adopt lifestyle habits that support your health. We adjust behaviour based on expectation, ultimately making these expectations true— even premature death.
Suppose you believe you are destined to live a certain length of life. In that case, you'll be less motivated to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, etc., which can lead to the early onset of chronic diseases and a shorter overall lifespan.
Fact: Your lifestyle has a much greater impact on your lifespan than genetics
While genetics do have an influence over longevity, their effect is very limited. Genetics account for about 25-30% of the variation in human lifespan. Our environment and lifestyle choices determine the remaining 70-75%. Say you have a gene that makes you more likely to develop heart disease. You may have a shorter lifespan than someone who does not have that gene.
But if you eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and don't smoke, you can still live a long and healthy life, even if you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease. You may even live longer than those without this predisposition.
On the other hand, if you have a gene that makes you more likely to live a long life, but you smoke, drink too much alcohol, and are overweight, you are more likely to die prematurely than someone who has that gene but makes healthy lifestyle choices.
Myth 3: Optimism Increases Life Expectancy
A recent study revealed people with higher levels of optimism were likelier to live longer than those with lower levels of optimism, but this one is still worth mentioning in our list of “myths” - here’s why. Being too optimistic and carefree about your lifestyle and hoping that everything will turn out to be fine could result in making choices that shorten your lifespan.
Fact: While positivity is definitely not discouraged, too much “optimism” alone is risky
A study revealed that people with perpetually bubbly and carefree souls didn't exactly win the lifespan lottery. Instead, the persistent and cautious personalities stood the test of time. It's the "never-give-up" attitude and the knack for sensible decision-making that emerged as the secret sauce for a prolonged existence.
Those who strolled through life with an unshakable belief that the universe would invariably sort things out seemed inclined to roll the dice on their health as they aged. This often meant sidelining their health in a bold game of chance with their well-being.
Myth 4: Red Wine Helps You Live Longer
The myth that red wine helps you live longer originated in the 1980s when researchers noticed that the French had a lower rate of heart disease than people in other countries, even though they ate a diet high in saturated fat. A theory to explain this "French Paradox" was that the French drank a lot of red wine, which contains antioxidants that can protect the heart.
Fact: Red Wine has compounds that can benefit longevity but in doses too small to make a difference
Red wine has resveratrol, which might help with high blood pressure and relax blood vessels, and is a compound known to enhance longevity. But to get the supposed health benefits of about 1 gram of resveratrol per day, you'd need to down roughly 500 to 2,700 litres of red wine, munch on 800 kilograms of red grapes, or have about 2,900 kilograms of dark chocolate.
That's a pretty wild amount, definitely not healthy or doable. Some studies suggest that having some wine might lower the death risk, but others disagree and say it doesn't really impact heart issues or how long you'll stick around.
In a study with over 3,000 folks, those who sipped on wine weekly had about a 7% chance of dying, while the non-wine drinkers had a 16% chance. Also, those who enjoyed three to five glasses of wine a day had a nearly 49% lower chance of, well, you know, than those who stayed away from wine. But honestly, three to five glasses a day might be pushing it.
On the flip side, another study looked at resveratrol's effects, focusing on folks from a couple of villages in the Chianti region of Italy—known for their love of red wine. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine dug into data from around 800 men and women, all aged 65 and older, who naturally had resveratrol-rich diets.
They checked the levels of metabolized resveratrol in their urine, expecting to find higher amounts in the healthiest individuals. However, that wasn't the case. In fact, they couldn't find any connection between how much resveratrol was in their systems and their rates of heart disease, cancer, or mortality.
Another study even found that cutting back on alcohol could bring down your risk of heart problems. Some experts think the so-called wine benefits might actually come from other things like being active, eating better, etc.
Myth 5: Women Live Longer Than Men Because of Biology
The idea that women live longer than men because of biology has been around forever. And there's a grain of truth to it. Women do have some biological advantages that contribute to their longer life expectancy.
For instance, their immune systems tend to be stronger, and they're less likely to develop certain serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer due to better lifestyle choices.
Fact: There’s no biological proof for women living longer, but it may be due to psychology
Women often lean towards healthier ways of living, with fewer habits like smoking and heavy drinking. However, the gap in life expectancy between genders isn't just about biology. Social and environmental factors also have their say.
For instance, men tend to take more risks—think smoking and drinking too much. They're also more likely to work in hazardous jobs—of the people who work in the four most dangerous gigs, more than 90% are men.
Plus, men aren't as inclined to seek medical help when they're unwell—men shell out around 21% less (that's roughly $1,600 per person) on healthcare each year compared to the ladies, even though nearly half of them (48%) wrestle with at least one ongoing health issue. So, while biology does its part, it's not the whole story. A mix of biology, social norms, and surroundings shapes the gap.
Myth 6: Certain Locations Make You Live Longer
Life expectancy varies across the world. Consider Okinawa, Japan, where folks live beyond 85 years, compared to the global average of 72.81 years. Many factors are in play here, like genetics, diet, lifestyle, and healthcare access. But some even think the place itself might have an effect.
Fact: It’s more about the lifestyles of the environment, not the actual location
There are a few reasons why people might think certain places lead to a longer life. One reason is the weather—some spots might have friendlier climates. Take Okinawa, with its gentle weather all year round. It could help people stay active and fit. Another reason is the sense of community. You've got these Blue Zones, five spots around the world where people live longer. They all share strong social bonds and a sense of purpose, which might be tied to their longer lives.
If you aim for a long and healthy life, smart lifestyle choices matter most, no matter where you're at. Here are some of those smart choices linked to a long life:
- Eating well
- Staying active
- Getting your sleep
- Keeping stress in check
- Skipping smoking and not going overboard with drinking
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Building strong social connections
- Take longevity-enhancing supplements
- Finding meaning in life
Myth 7: Working Out Doesn’t Play Much Of A Role In Lengthening Lifespan
Most of the time, this myth is perpetuated by people with a stake in selling stuff that isn't tied to exercise. Think about companies peddling diet products or supplements. They might say you can skip the sweat for good health or weight loss—all to sell their quick fixes to people wanting a simple health boost.
Fact: Cardio-respiratory fitness and strength are highly predictive of a long life.
There's a lot of solid evidence showing that exercise can really make a mark on how long you live. Here's why that myth isn't on the money:
- Exercise dials down the risk of chronic illnesses: Conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer are the top culprits behind deaths. But exercise can cut down the odds of getting these diseases, helping you hang around for longer.
- It's a brain booster: Our cognitive function naturally declines as the years pile up. Exercise can slam the brakes on that decline and sometimes even perk up our brainpower. That adds up to a longer and healthier life.
- It's a weight manager: Being overweight increases the risk of many diseases. Exercise keeps your weight in check, slashing the odds of getting these diseases and adding years to your life.
- It's a bone and muscle builder: As time passes, our bones and muscles weaken. But exercise swoops in to strengthen them, making sure you're less likely to get hurt or take a tumble. That spells more days in the sun.
- It's a mood and energy lifter: Exercise has a knack for perking up your mood and energy. That means you're all set to tackle each day enthusiastically, leading to a longer and happier life.
Myth 8: You Can’t Extend Your Life If You’ve Had Bad Habits In The Past
Certain not-so-great habits like smoking and going heavy on drinks can seriously mess with our health and cut our time short. If someone's been tangled up in these habits, they might think turning things around is a lost cause and that they've missed the boat.
Fact: Even past smokers can add years to their life if they change their habit
Here's the thing: it's never too late to turn things around. Even if you've had a run with bad habits, you can still boost your health and stretch out your time by making smart choices today.
A study shows that if you kick the smoking habit at 35, you could add around 6.9 to 8.5 years to your life if you're a male and 6.1 to 7.7 years if you're a female. Starting younger gives you an even bigger boost. Even if you decide to quit later in life, it's still worth it. If you quit at 65, men might see an extra 1.4 to 2.0 years, and women could gain 2.7 to 3.7 years.
Myth 9: The Ageing Process Can’t Be Slowed Or Changed
Ageing is a natural part of life, and we can't really stop the ticking clock entirely. However, there are things that we can do to slow down the ageing process and make it healthier.
Fact: While you can’t outrun time, you can slow down many processes associated with ageing
While the intricacies of ageing remain a bit of a puzzle, there's no lack of scientific proof to suggest that slowing or altering the process is impossible. In fact, an increasing body of evidence highlights the potential to stretch out lifespans and enhance healthspans through smart lifestyle choices and targeted measures.
Here are some of the studies that have been done on the possibility of slowing or changing the ageing process:
- Metabolic interventions: Certain studies indicate that focusing on specific metabolic pathways could put the brakes on ageing. For instance, research showed that metformin, a diabetes medication, can extend the lifespan of mice.
- Gene therapy: Gene therapy, which involves tinkering with cell genes, has been used to treat various ailments. This technique is also being investigated for its potential to slow ageing.
- NMN Supplementation: As time goes on or in certain health conditions, our levels of NAD+ take a dip. But there's a connection to a compound called nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), which gives NAD+ a boost. In mice, NMN has shown promise for enhancing health.
When given to regular aging mice for a year, it perked up different health markers like metabolism, activity levels, insulin sensitivity, and even eye function. This hints that NMN might just hold potential as an anti-aging treatment for humans.
While there are tons of statements around longevity, trust only those supported by substantial research.
With proper diet, exercise, keeping a healthy weight, leaving stress out of our lives, and the right supplements, we can achieve greater healthspans and lifespans.