The word “longevity” can be viewed in two ways. One, simply defined as the length of your life, or two, as having a longer-than-normal life, according to Webster’s dictionary. “In general, we think of it as, to have longevity is to have a particularly long life,” says Valter Longo, Ph.D., director of the USC Longevity Institute, author of “The Longevity Diet” and developer of the renowned fasting-mimicking diet program ProLon.
The human life span has dramatically increased in the United States for decades. Yet in the last few years, it’s decreased. In the first half of 2020, life expectancy at birth for the overall U.S. population was 77.8 years, the lowest level since 2006, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a full year shorter than life expectancy for the same population a year prior, which was 78.8 years. “We are not clear on what the reasons are,” says Longo. “Some populations have a particularly high death rate that could be due to life choices.” According to NCHS data, the non-Hispanic black population saw the greatest decline in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020, with life expectancy at birth falling from 74.7 to 72 years.
Longo says that while life span has increased, another term he calls “health span” has not. Americans are living longer than they did 100 years ago, but that’s not been accompanied by a great increase in health. That means that most Americans, by age 65, are on multiple drugs and have multiple chronic diseases — essentially living longer, sicker, says Longo.
Scientific advances that have increased human longevity
Extensive research and medical advances have gone into raising life expectancy for Americans by several decades over the last 100 years. (Consider that in 1920, life expectancy was around 54 years, according to the CDC.) Chief among them: the ability to fight infectious diseases, which many more people used to die from, says Longo. “There is much more attention being placed on human health, meaning that doctors and all the money that goes into health care was not there before,” he adds.
Other advances include the introduction of antibiotics, penicillin, vaccinations we receive as children and the ability to get surgery quickly, which can prevent instances such as stage 1 cancer from becoming stage 4 cancer, says Longo. The rise of preventative care, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, has also enabled doctors to spot problems sooner, increasing survival rates. There’s also been a notable decrease in death from cardiovascular disease thanks to surgeries and drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering statins. (Yet heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC.)
However, “you could argue that some of it got better, and some of got worse,” says Longo. Nutrition and lifestyle factors play a huge role in getting us to the 80-year lifespan, and we have not been successful in reversing death rates from cancer or diabetes, says Longo.
Current research on longevity
While most of the current longevity research is still in the lab, we’re starting to see some emerging interventions, particularly in the area of nutrition, says Longo. Research on fasting is one of them, and more people are adopting this pattern into their dietary habits.
Billions of dollars are also being poured into developing a potential drug to treat aging. “We are probably still 10 years away from being able to determine whether someone healthy can take it and extend their life,” says Longo.
The United States Census Bureau projected in 2020 that by the year 2060, life expectancy for the total U.S. population will increase to 85.6 years. Longo says that given the current research, it’s reasonable that we’ll one day see the possibility of average human longevity extending to 110 years. To reach this point, it will take following all the right recommendations (think nutrition, exercise and fasting) and potentially drugs or therapies, he adds. Technology and artificial intelligence will also play a role in determining how doctors can intervene earlier to address any problems that are developing in your body.
In Longo’s home city of Genoa, Italy, centenarians are common. “It’s our reality — not just an idea so people can reach 100,” he says. “[It’s based on] the health of the people and the average lifespan of people who do all the right things.”
8 ways to increase longevity
What exactly does doing all the right things mean? Longo, among the top scientists on longevity, and Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., author of the book “Radical Longevity,” share their top tips.
1. Watch your diet.
Longo recommends eating a Pescatarian diet (fish a few times a week) until age 65, then shifting to a Mediterranean diet after that. But don’t overcomplicate things, and don’t starve yourself. “Eat a lot of the right things, don’t eat a little,” he says. He also advocates for a low-protein diet, around 0.35 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
2. Try intermittent fasting.
Limit your eating to a 12-hour window each day, followed by 12 hours of fasting at night. (Here’s how to get started with intermittent fasting.) Longo is also a proponent of fasting-mimicking diets, for which he’s been a lead researcher. “[Following a fasting-mimicking diet] is turning back the clock a little bit and giving your system an annual reset,” he says.
3. Get enough exercise
Adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.” Longo also recommends walking 1 hour per day.
4. Make plans with friends.
On average, women live about 5 years longer than men. While scientists aren’t sure precisely why, it may have to do with the importance of having a wide circle of friends, which women tend to prioritize more than men. “Having a robust social life is exceedingly important, along with having a purpose in life,” says Gittleman. Research also shows that strong social networks positively shaped health behaviors of people who live long lives, making finding the “right tribe” one of the nine principles of the Blue Zones (an organization that studies the world’s longest-lived populations) to increase your longevity.
5. Be mindful of everyday toxins.
“A lot of toxins we’re ingesting come in through water and cooking pans,” says Gittleman. She advises paying close attention to your cookware and investing in a good water filtration system. (Learn why stainless steel pans may be the safest cookware.)
6. Monitor your iron levels.
A 2020 study of more than 48,000 individuals published in Clinical Nutrition found raised blood iron levels to be associated with lower longevity. A 2015 study examined the link between blood donation and mortality risk, suggesting those who donated blood more often were more likely to live longer. However, more research is needed to confirm whether blood donation, which reduces iron levels, is beneficial to your health. Gittleman suggests an annual blood test to monitor your levels of iron, too much of which has been linked to cancer-causing free radicals.
7. Mind your minerals.
Always consult with your doctor before adding supplements to your routine. A few essential minerals that Gittleman recommends: zinc, for immunity benefits; magnesium, to support metabolism and energy production; and iodine, to protect the thyroid.
8. Change your mindset.
Gittleman stresses the importance of positive thinking around healthy aging. In her book, she discusses extending your “youth span” and deciding to postpone aging about 30 years. “That means making 90 the new 60 and 70 the new 40,” she says.
The bottom line, says Longo, is that most people have some ideas about habits to increase their longevity, but the devil is in the details. “Most people don’t eat a lot of the right things,” he says. “To live a long life, you have to get it right, and the details can make a big difference.” At the end of the day, you should be looking to science to guide you toward making the right choices, not opinions. And remember that you’re never too old to think about ways to increase your longevity. “You can postpone aging by doing the right things now,” says Gittleman. “It’s never too late to start.”