Little things that add up to a long and happy life

Aging’s escape velocity

For more than a century, we’ve managed to add an average of 0.3 years to our life expectancy every year. But what would happen if we had the technology to add a year of life expectancy every year? In theory, we would achieve biological immortality, having reached aging’s “escape velocity.”
Researchers with an eye to the future, such as Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, claim that we’ll reach this escape velocity in a matter of decades. Other scientists are less optimistic, predicting that we’ll reach a limit, a maximum age we won’t be able to surpass, no matter how much technology we have. For example, some biologists assert that our cells stop regenerating after about 120 years.

Active mind, youthful body

There is much wisdom in the classic saying “mens sana in corpore sano” (“a sound mind in a sound body”): It reminds us that both mind and body are important, and that the health of one is connected to that of the other. It has been shown that maintaining an active, adaptable mind is one of the key factors in staying young.

Having a youthful mind also drives you toward a healthy lifestyle that will slow the aging process.
Just as a lack of physical exercise has negative effects on our bodies and mood, a lack of mental exercise is bad for us because it causes our neurons and neural connections to deteriorate—and, as a result, reduces our ability to react to our surroundings.

This is why it’s so important to give your brain a workout.

One pioneer in advocating for mental exercise is the Israeli neuroscientist Shlomo Breznitz, who argues that the brain needs a lot of stimulation in order to stay in shape. As he stated in an interview with Eduard Punset for the Spanish television program Redes:
There is a tension between what is good for someone and what they want to do. This is because people, especially older people, like to do things as they’ve always done them. The problem is that when the brain develops ingrained habits, it doesn’t need to think anymore. Things get done quickly and efficiently on automatic pilot, often in a very advantageous way. This creates a tendency to stick to routines, and the only way of breaking these is to confront the brain with new information.
Presented with new information, the brain creates new connections and is revitalized. This is why it is so important to expose yourself to change, even if stepping outside your comfort zone means feeling a bit of anxiety.

The effects of mental training have been scientifically demonstrated. According to Collins Hemingway and Shlomo Breznitz in their book Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, mental training is beneficial on many levels: “You begin exercising your brain by doing a certain task for the first time,” he writes. “And at first it seems very difficult, but as you learn how to do it, the training is already working. The second time, you realize that it’s easier, not harder, to do, because you’re getting better at it. This has a fantastic effect on a person’s mood. In and of itself, it is a transformation that affects not only the results obtained, but also his or her self-image.”

This description of a “mental workout” might sound a bit formal, but simply interacting with others—playing a game, for example—offers new stimuli and helps prevent the depression that can come with solitude.

Our neurons start to age while we are still in our twenties. This process is slowed, however, by intellectual activity, curiosity, and a desire to learn. Dealing with new situations, learning something new every day, playing games, and interacting with other people seem to be essential antiaging strategies for the mind. Furthermore, a more positive outlook in this regard will yield greater mental benefits.

Stress: Accused of killing longevity

Many people seem older than they are. Research into the causes of premature aging has shown that stress has a lot to do with it, because the body wears down much faster during periods of crisis. The American Institute of Stress investigated this degenerative process and concluded that most health problems are caused by stress.

Researchers at the Heidelberg University Hospital conducted a study in which they subjected a young doctor to a job interview, which they made even more stressful by forcing him to solve complex math problems for thirty minutes. Afterward, they took a blood sample. What they discovered was that his antibodies had reacted to stress the same way they react to pathogens, activating the proteins that trigger an immune response. The problem is that this response not only neutralizes harmful agents, it also damages healthy cells, leading them to age prematurely.

The University of California conducted a similar study, taking data and samples from thirty-nine women who had high levels of stress due to the illness of one of their children and comparing them to samples from women with healthy children and low levels of stress. They found that stress promotes cellular aging by weakening cell structures known as telomeres, which affect cellular regeneration and how our cells age. As the study revealed, the greater the stress, the greater the degenerative effect on cells.

How does stress work?

These days, people live at a frantic pace and in a nearly constant state of competition. At this fever pitch, stress is a natural response to the information being received by the body as potentially dangerous or problematic.

Theoretically, this is a useful reaction, as it helps us survive in hostile surroundings. Over the course of our evolution, we have used this response to deal with difficult situations and to flee from predators.

The alarm that goes off in our head makes our neurons activate the pituitary gland, which produces hormones that release corticotropin, which in turn circulates through the body via the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal gland is then triggered to release adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises our respiratory rate and pulse and prepares our muscles for action, getting the body ready to react to perceived danger, while cortisol increases the release of dopamine and blood glucose, which is what gets us “charged up” and allows us to face challenges.
Cave Dwellers
Modern Humans
Were relaxed most of the time.
Work most of the time and are alert to any and all threats.
Felt stress only in very specific situations.
Are online or waiting for notifications from their cell phones twenty-four hours a day.
The threats were real: A predator could end their lives at any moment.
The brain associates the ping of a cell phone or an e-mail notification with the threat of a predator.
High doses of cortisol and adrenaline at moments of danger kept the body healthy.
Low doses of cortisol flow constantly through the body, with implications for a range of health problems, including adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome.
These processes are, in moderation, beneficial—they help us overcome challenges in our daily lives. Nonetheless, the stress to which human beings are subjected today is clearly harmful.

Stress has a degenerative effect over time. A sustained state of emergency affects the neurons associated with memory, as well as inhibiting the release of certain hormones, the absence of which can cause depression. Its secondary effects include irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and high blood pressure.

As such, though challenges are good for keeping mind and body active, we should adjust our high-stress lifestyles in order to avoid the premature aging of our bodies.

Be mindful about reducing stress

Whether or not the threats we perceive are real, stress is an easily identifiable condition that not only causes anxiety but is also highly psychosomatic, affecting everything from our digestive system to our skin.

This is why prevention is so important in avoiding the toll that stress takes on us—and why many experts recommend practicing mindfulness.

The central premise of this stress-reduction method is focusing on the self: noticing our responses, even if they are conditioned by habit, in order to be fully conscious of them. In this way, we connect with the here and now and limit thoughts that tend to spiral out of control.

“We have to learn to turn off the autopilot that’s steering us in an endless loop. We all know people who snack while talking on the phone or watching the news. You ask them if the omelet they just ate had onion in it, and they can’t tell you,” says Roberto Alcibar, who abandoned his fast-paced life to become a certified instructor of mindfulness after an illness threw him into a period of acute stress.

One way to reach a state of mindfulness is through meditation, which helps filter the information that reaches us from the outside world. It can also be achieved through breathing exercises, yoga, and body scans.

Achieving mindfulness involves a gradual process of training, but with a bit of practice we can learn to focus our mind completely, which reduces stress and helps us live longer.

A little stress is good for you

While sustained, intense stress is a known enemy of longevity and both mental and physical health, low levels of stress have been shown to be beneficial.

After observing a group of test subjects for more than twenty years, Dr. Howard S. Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, discovered that people who maintained a low level of stress, who faced challenges and put their heart and soul into their work in order to succeed, lived longer than those who chose a more relaxed lifestyle and retired earlier. From this, he concluded that a small dose of stress is a positive thing, as those who live with low levels of stress tend to develop healthier habits, smoke less, and drink less alcohol.

Given this, it is not surprising that many of the supercentenarians—people who live to be 110 or more—whom we’ll meet in this book talk about having lived intense lives and working well into old age.

A lot of sitting will age you

In the Western world in particular, the rise in sedentary behavior has led to numerous diseases such as hypertension and obesity, which in turn affect longevity.

Spending too much time seated at work or at home not only reduces muscular and respiratory fitness but also increases appetite and curbs the desire to participate in activities. Being sedentary can lead to hypertension, imbalanced eating, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even certain kinds of cancer. Recent studies have shown a connection between a lack of physical activity and the progressive distortion of telomeres in the immune system, which ages those cells and, in turn, the organism as a whole.

This is a problem at all life stages, not only among adults. Sedentary children suffer from high rates of obesity and all its associated health issues and risks, which is why it’s so important to develop a healthy and active lifestyle at an early age.

It’s easy to be less sedentary; it just takes a bit of effort and a few changes to your routine. We can access a more active lifestyle that makes us feel better inside and out—we just have to add a few ingredients to our everyday habits:
  • Walk to work, or just go on a walk for at least twenty minutes each day.
  • Use your feet instead of an elevator or escalator. This is good for your posture, your muscles, and your respiratory system, among other things.
  • Participate in social or leisure activities so that you don’t spend too much time in front of the television.
  • Replace your junk food with fruit and you’ll have less of an urge to snack, and more nutrients in your system.
  • Get the right amount of sleep. Seven to nine hours is good, but any more than that makes us lethargic.
  • Play with children or pets, or join a sports team. This not only strengthens the body but also stimulates the mind and boosts self-esteem.
  • Be conscious of your daily routine in order to detect harmful habits and replace them with more positive ones.
By making these small changes, we can begin to renew our bodies and minds and increase our life expectancy.

A model’s best-kept secret

Though we age both externally and internally, both physically and mentally, one of the things that tell us the most about people’s age is their skin, which takes on different textures and colors according to processes going on beneath the surface. Most of those who make their living as models claim to sleep between nine and ten hours the night before a fashion show. This gives their skin a taut, wrinkle-free appearance and a healthy, radiant glow.

Science has shown that sleep is a key antiaging tool, because when we sleep we generate melatonin, a hormone that occurs naturally in our bodies. The pineal gland produces it from the neurotransmitter serotonin according to our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, and it plays a role in our sleep and waking cycles.

A powerful antioxidant, melatonin helps us live longer, and also offers the following benefits:
  • It strengthens the immune system.
  • It contains an element that protects against cancer.
  • It promotes the natural production of insulin.
  • It slows the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • It helps prevent osteoporosis and fight heart disease.
For all these reasons, melatonin is a great ally in preserving youth. It should be noted, however, that melatonin production decreases after age thirty. We can compensate for this by:
  • Eating a balanced diet and getting more calcium.
  • Soaking up a moderate amount of sun each day.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Avoiding stress, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, all of which make it harder to get a good night’s rest, depriving us of the melatonin we need.
Experts are trying to determine whether artificially stimulating production of melatonin might help slow the aging process . . . which would confirm the theory that we already carry the secret to longevity within us.

Antiaging attitudes

The mind has tremendous power over the body and how quickly it ages. Most doctors agree that the secret to keeping the body young is keeping the mind active—a key element of ikigai—and in not caving in when we face difficulties throughout our lives.

One study, conducted at Yeshiva University, found that the people who live the longest have two dispositional traits in common: a positive attitude and a high degree of emotional awareness. In other words, those who face challenges with a positive outlook and are able to manage their emotions are already well on their way toward longevity.

stoic attitude—serenity in the face of a setback—can also help keep you young, as it lowers anxiety and stress levels and stabilizes behavior. This can be seen in the greater life expectancies of certain cultures with unhurried, deliberate lifestyles.

Many centenarians and supercentenarians have similar profiles: They have had full lives that were difficult at times, but they knew how to approach these challenges with a positive attitude and not be overwhelmed by the obstacles they faced.

Alexander Imich, who in 2014 became the world’s oldest living man at age 111, knew he had good genes but understood that other factors contributed, too: “The life you live is equally or more important for longevity,” he said in an interview with Reuters after being added to Guinness World Records in 2014.

An ode to longevity

During our stay in Ogimi, the village that holds the Guinness record for longevity, a woman who was about to turn 100 years old sang the following song for us in a mixture of Japanese and the local dialect:
To keep healthy and have a long life,
eat just a little of everything with relish,
go to bed early, get up early, and then go out for a walk.
We live each day with serenity and we enjoy the journey.
To keep healthy and have a long life,
we get on well with all of our friends.
Spring, summer, fall, winter,
we happily enjoy all the seasons.
The secret is to not get distracted by how old the fingers are;
from the fingers to the head and back once again.
If you keep moving with your fingers working, 100 years
will come to you.
We can now use our fingers to turn the page to the next chapter, where we will look at the close relationship between longevity and discovering our life’s mission.





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