Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Embracing Simplicity is the Key to Living a Longer, Happier Life
Longevity isn’t just about living longer, it’s about taking purposeful action toward a life worth living.
Physical movement is one of the most important extenders of your lifespan, whether it be through a naturally active lifestyle, regular exercise, or both.
Keeping your diet simple by eliminating processed foods, incorporating plenty of plant-based foods, and eating enough protein is likely enough for the general population.
A healthy mindset can reduce inflammation, ward off chronic disease, and help you live happier, healthier, and longer.
Stress management is necessary for knocking out chronic stress, while controlled stressors, like cold exposure, can improve the body’s resilience to stress.
Being socially connected with fulfilling relationships and purpose is an often overlooked but vital necessity for longevity.
Novel anti-aging treatments may provide more benefits after the basic pillars of health are already in place.
In a culture fixated on anti-aging, it’s often the more novel, invasive, and expensive therapies that come to the forefront of extending longevity. However, the true secret to a longer, healthier life lies in adopting an intuitive and science-based approach that focuses on the foundations of a healthy human existence.
While they certainly have a time and place, relying on hormone replacement therapy, excessive supplements, or injectable peptides to prolong your lifespan will likely miss the mark of a long and fulfilling life if the health basics aren’t in place. On my recent podcast with Dr. Kien Vuu, we explore the major pillars of physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health and what it truly means to live a happy and healthy life.
It turns out that foundational doesn’t always mean “boring”, and our discussion on the five “Blue Zones®” gives us a novel way to look at our health and lifespan. By turning our attention to these geographical locations that host many of the world’s “centenarians”, key components of health emerge that largely influence our longevity and pave the way for a vibrant and meaningful existence.
As the saying goes, life is short, and I want to ensure that you direct your energy and resources towards the most productive path to living it to the fullest (and longest). As it turns out, longevity may just be merely a “symptom” of living a happy and healthy life.
Unlocking Longevity and Healthspan
Before delving into the factors that shape our longevity, it’s important to understand the concepts of longevity and healthspan, as there is some nuance to unpack here. By the year 2050, the world is expected to bear more than a billion people aged 65 or older , but what does a longer life expectancy really look like?
What is Longevity?
Today, people born in the U.S. can typically expect to live about 79 years, though startling trends have emerged over recent years that indicate average life expectancy is decreasing overall . It’s really no wonder why anti-aging and longevity are buzzwords in functional medicine, and will likely continue to be of significant interest.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of chronic disease is rampant in our elderly population, and (along with the pandemic) likely plays a role in our lifespan decline . As we live longer, rates of age-related disease, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, continue to climb . This places a heavy burden on our health and begs the question, what are we really living for when we choose to live longer?
This is where the terms “healthspan”, “active life expectancy”, and “longevity” come into play, which generally refers to the length of time you can live free of chronic disease, with vitality, and autonomously. Data shows that people tend to live longer, healthier lives when they have no limitations on activities of daily living and can care for themselves independently .
The Take-Home Message on Life Expectancy
Our genetics make up 30% of life expectancy, and epigenetics (external factors that influence our DNA) makes up the rest [4, 5]. This leaves a lot of room for our environment (and us) to intervene, with some of the most common factors that influence aging below :
Clearly, simply extending our life through expensive supplements, stem cells, or bioidentical hormone “pellets” isn’t going to cut it. What we are aiming for here with longevity is not just a longer life but a higher quality of life — one generally free of chronic disease and pain. Skipping the above factors in lieu of novel anti-aging interventions will likely lead to an uphill battle when trying to get there.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that if you currently have a chronic health condition, you are exempt from living a long, happy, and fulfilling life. Getting a healthy foundation in place can help prevent the emergence of future age-related diseases and likely improve your current state of health, meaning you may particularly benefit from pursuing exceptional longevity.
Research shows that if you make it to age 65, it’s highly likely you’ll make it to 85. And if you make it to 85, the odds are in your favor that you’ll reach 92 . So with this more clear definition of longevity (and a fairly achievable goal of first reaching age 65), let’s get into what you can do to both get there and set yourself up for long-term wellness.
The World’s Oldest Populations Reveal The Pillars of Longevity
The term “Blue Zones®” was trademarked by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner after he expanded on prior research in human aging that found certain areas of the world to be “longevity hotspots”. In the regions, people were living longer, happier, and healthier lives . These five regions have a high concentration of centenarians (residents ≥ age of 100), with a geriatric population largely free of chronic and age-related diseases [7, 8].
None of these places are particularly known for their medical advancements or novel research in anti-aging and human lifespan extension, and actually, most citizens of these areas live a pretty rural lifestyle. Buettner and his team of researchers, which consisted of anthropologists, dieticians, demographers, epidemiologists, and medical researchers, took a deep look at what was keeping the residents of these places alive longer and happier.
They found that these five regions had four very basic components of health in common: natural physical movement, the right outlook, wise eating, and social connection . But none of these are particularly surprising, and they all fit into The National Health Institute of Aging’s factors for healthy living :
Protecting your physical health
Exercising and moving your body regularly
Eating a healthy diet
Getting quality sleep
Avoiding or limiting alcohol
Getting regular health checkups
Protecting your mental health
Staying connected to others
Managing stress and having fun
Taking care of mood imbalances
Doing things you enjoy
Challenging your brain
In fact, all of these are topics that I regularly address with my patients and speak about on my podcast. I have consistently found that having the right foundations in place is essential for better health. But research into some of the longest-living populations in the world helps us see the tangible effects of these practices a little more clearly, providing us with new inspiration and bringing our attention back to the importance of these basics.
Muscling our way through living longer with invasive and expensive medical treatments isn’t statistically paying off — it might be time we stop for a minute and reassess what the basic habits of healthy living have to offer us.
Pillar 1: Natural Movement
The active lifestyle of Blue Zones® centenarians is primarily a natural result of higher engagement with their environment. Whether it be through gardening for their food production or biking/ walking as their main mode of transportation, these populations are far from sedentary. Incorporating this concept into our daily life is a great first step toward longevity.
Most of us don’t live in a highly walkable city or grow our own food, but we can draw inspiration from these practices. Start taking a short walk at lunch, investing in a standing desk, or parking your car toward the back of the lot when shopping for groceries (when it’s safe to do so).
However, regular exercise is the easiest way to get in enough physical activity to increase your longevity. Engaging in any form of exercise at any intensity has been associated with increased muscular strength and power in older people, contributing to better overall physical function .
Physical activity is linked to a lower risk of death in people with breast cancer, heart disease, COPD, and type 2 diabetes, it protects against cognitive decline and increases life expectancy [11, 12]. These benefits make it pretty clear why the NIH has named exercise as the most important factor in increasing lifespan .
Recent research has given us new insight into how exercise increases longevity, and the results of a 2021 meta-analysis show that exercise can reduce markers of senescent cells (associated with aging and cellular deterioration) in healthy people . Although more research is needed to fully understand how this affects our overall lifespan, exercise’s ability to prevent chronic disease, boost mood, improve sleep, increase energy, and reduce stress provide more that enough push to get you moving.
The Type of Exercise Best Suited for a Longer Lifespan
Is there a “best” type of exercise for longevity? Likely not, though you will probably want to incorporate both strength training and aerobic exercise for the most benefit. In older adults, higher muscle mass has been associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause, and preserving and building muscle is part of a healthy lifestyle [14, 15, 16]. Resistance training is one of the easiest and quickest ways to build muscle mass at all ages.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to enhance autophagy, a cellular process that helps maintain cellular health and may contribute to the mechanisms by which exercise promotes longevity . Running, even at a minimal frequency, has been linked to a reduced risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer . It is important to note that the benefits of running do not appear to increase with excessive amounts of running beyond 50 minutes per week.
It seems that any type of exercise is better than none, as even low levels of activity are better for increasing longevity than no physical activity . However, it’s likely 2–4 days per week provides the most health benefits. Embracing some aspect of an active lifestyle, whether it be through natural daily movement, exercise, or both, can significantly improve longevity and overall well-being.
Pillar 2: Intelligent Eating
A non-processed, whole-food diet is known to combat chronic disease and improve overall health, and is considered a major component as to why certain populations live to a much older age. A 2020 research review looked at 153 studies to better understand the relationship between dietary patterns and all-cause mortality .
The authors found that, overall, a diet that includes vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, unsaturated vegetable oils, and protein (fish, lean meat, and poultry) is associated with a lower risk of death from all causes. This dietary pattern tended to consist of little red or processed meat, high-fat dairy, and refined carbs or sweets, and moderation of alcohol consumption .
The Paleo diet meets these prerequisites and is anti-inflammatory (through the removal of foods that commonly induce an immune system response), making it an easy place to start when looking for a longevity-promoting diet.
Meat may not be necessary, as many Blue Zones® centenarians aren’t thought to have meat as a consistent part of their diet (due to limited regional access). However, data from 175 countries found that eating meat was positively associated with life expectancy, while higher carb intake was weakly associated with lower life expectancy .
It may be that protein is the most important part of this equation, as research shows that higher total protein intake was associated with a lower risk of death from any cause . This specific study found plant protein was found to be more protective than animal protein, but as long as your dietary protein levels are high — regardless of the source — your health and lifespan will likely benefit.
Pillar 3: The “Right” Perspective
The power of a positive mindset extends far beyond simply improving our daily lives — it can also play a significant role in promoting longevity. Research has shown that cultivating a positive outlook can have profound effects on our physical and mental well-being, ultimately contributing to a longer and healthier life.
Mindfulness meditation has been found to positively impact the brain’s default mode network (DMN), as it brings focus to the present moment, interrupting the DMN’s continuous stream of negative “background noise”. During our discussion on the podcast, Dr. Vuu stated that the DMN runs off of something called a “negativity bias,” where the DMN automatically filters thoughts through a negative lens. On average, we have 80,000 thoughts a day, and 70–80% are negative.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this filter previously kept us safe as it’s great for detecting both real and perceived danger. However, it’s pretty counterproductive for living a happy life in today’s modern society. Mindfulness, whether it comes in the form of meditation, exercise, or a “flow state,” helps combat this seemingly endless stream of negative thoughts.
Along with mindfulness, adopting a positive mindset can also help manage and mitigate chronic stress. When left uncontrolled, chronic stress can create a significant barrier to living a longer, healthier life. There is a strong association between mental resilience (the ability to withstand stressful events) and how stressful we perceive an event to be . Greater resilience supports a healthy aging process, protects against developing disabilities, and predicts happiness, life satisfaction, and perceived health .
Higher levels of stress, feeling stigmatized, and loneliness are linked to lower levels of resilience, and optimism, self-mastery, and a sense of competency are associated with greater levels . One large meta-analysis with over 157,000 participants found that those who have a positive attitude are at a 15–25% lower risk of dying . And while this may be due to other lifestyle behaviors that those with a positive outlook choose to engage in, such as regular exercise and a healthy diet, a healthy outlook on life appears to be an integral part of living longer.
When we approach challenging situations with optimism and view them as opportunities for growth, we activate the body’s stress response in a more controlled and adaptive manner. This not only reduces the harmful impact of chronic stress on our bodies but also allows us to navigate life’s difficulties more effectively.
Not All Stress is Bad Stress
Incorporating hormetic stressors into our lives can also help modulate the stress response and increase resilience. Hormetic stressors are mild stressors that, when experienced in moderation, stimulate our body’s adaptive stress response, but in a way that promotes health and longevity. This is in contrast to high doses of chronic stress, also called toxic stress, which can exhaust our positive biological adaptations to stress and cause damage to the body .
Moderate doses of hormetic stressors — such as from exercise, short-term and extreme temperature exposure, or challenging life experiences — can help our cells adapt to other types of stressors and help us become more resilient to the effects of living a long life . Along with numerous other benefits, cold exposure has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and protect against metabolic disease .
Finding the balance between managing chronic stress and introducing controlled, short-term stress is key for living to an old age.
Pillar 4: Social Connection
Social connection is a well-known necessity for living a happier, fuller life, and research shows that having strong social relationships is associated with extended longevity. A 2010 meta-analysis showed that having “weak” (infrequent and/or unhealthy) relationships posed just as great of a risk for early mortality as smoking and alcohol abuse . Even more surprising was that the researchers found that weak social interaction may contribute to mortality more than a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.
But the point here isn’t to figure out which exact factors are worse than others for our longevity but to underscore that it is the basic components of living that make the best target for extending your lifespan. Buettner found that prioritizing your relationships is associated with longer living . And the more you foster your relationships, the stronger they become, and the more likely your lifespan will benefit.
When it comes to our health, relationships are often left to the wayside in lieu of novel treatments or simply just other responsibilities, and this research encourages us to take a more holistic view of what it means to have a healthy lifestyle.
Having a Purpose is Not a Luxury
Insight into some of the healthiest regions of the world with the longest-living populations has found that those who had a purpose (ie: greater contribution to their community) were associated with a greater lifespan . In Western societies, we often entangle purpose with work, which can be unnecessarily restricting and discouraging for many.
Finding a sense of contribution can absolutely come through your career, but it can also be found through volunteer work, interaction with younger generations or other mentorship, and spiritual and/or religious pursuits. The avenues in which we can find purpose are essentially limitless and highly unique to each individual.
These wide variances can make a “sense of purpose” a challenging topic to research. But there is evidence that a specific type of purpose — religious and spiritual — can help protect against death and extend longevity, possibly through psychological, immune, endocrine, and neurological changes in the body . Importantly, the researchers note that these effects may come from social connection and healthy habits, which can be present in any outlet for purpose.
As Dr. Vuu so succinctly put it, “Find the thing that lights you up, brings you joy, then share that with others”. He continued on to say that we often don’t need to look all that far, as sharing the struggles and obstacles we have overcome can be one of the greatest purposes of all.
I have certainly embodied this principle in my own work, as it’s my own health challenges that led me to create this platform so I can help others heal from their own chronic health concerns and, by default, improve their longevity.
Longevity is Just a Symptom of a Healthy Life
Living a longer lifespan is ultimately a natural byproduct of living a healthy lifestyle — something that new anti-aging interventions would be hard-pressed to replace. Getting adequate physical activity, eating a balanced and unprocessed diet, and staying connected and happy are the key components of human longevity.
Finding a way to fix your diet to heal your body and promote a longer life can be challenging, and my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, will walk you through how to find the exact diet plan that will optimize your health. For more research breakdowns and tips on living a healthier life, check out my YouTube channel.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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