6 Factors that Affect Life Longevity
We’re back with part 2 of our Longevity mini blog series. In part 1, we introduced you to the concept of longevity and began to discuss the way population longevity varies around the world. Part 2 will delve into what affects life longevity, the reasons for differences in longevity between countries and gender, the concept of ‘Blue Zones’, and the impact of increased longevity on the economy.
What factors impact longevity?
Research has suggested that there are a number of factors which can impact longevity. These factors include genetics, the environment and lifestyle.
We’ve rounded up 6 of the key factors which play a part in longevity:
It is estimated that about 20-25% of the variation in human lifespan is determined by genetics, but which genes and how they play a part in longevity are not yet fully understood. This was supported by the Danish Twin Study, which echoed this and suggested the other 80% is dictated by our lifestyle (1).
It is likely that variants in multiple genes, some of which are not yet identified, act together to contribute to a long life.
It is thought that for around the first 80 years of life, a correct lifestyle is a greater determinant of health and life span compared to genetics (2). However, after this stage, genetics then appears to play a progressively more important role in keeping individuals healthy as they age. For centenarians, it reaches up to 33% for women and 48% for men (2)!
In almost all countries across the world, women outlive men. A most recent example of this is during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has been shown to impact male mortality disproportionately.
Sex hormones are argued to play a crucial role in the female advantage – for example, the female sex hormone oestrogen is protective against cardiovascular diseases, whereas the sex hormone androgen, which is higher in men, is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases (3).
Environmental quality is a hugely important factor influencing health and morbidity. Factors such as air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources, and soil deterioration are all capable of increasing human mortality and so, reducing longevity (4).
The average life span has increased dramatically since 1900, and this has to a large extent, been due to the environments we live in. Changes such as improvements to the availability of clean water, declines in infectious diseases, in addition to rising standards of living, economic growth and improved nutritional status, are all thought to have impacted longevity (4).
4. Diet quality
A good diet is known to be extremely beneficial for your overall health and so can be linked to longevity.
A high intake of wholegrains, fruits, veggies and nuts is linked with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality, whereas a high intake of (red) meat and especially processed meat. is positively related to all-cause mortality (5).
Moreover, the Mediterranean and also high-quality diets are linked to reduced all-cause mortality risk and longer survival (6).
The components of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Lots of brightly coloured fruits and veggies
- Plenty of wholegrains, nuts, and seeds
- Plant-based protein sources, e.g. legumes and pulses
- Small amounts of meat and fish
- Moderate consumption of red wine
- Daily extra virgin olive oil
Research has hinted that exposure to short-term stress can strengthen cellular responses to stress. This stress is said to promote longevity. However, on the contrary to this, prolonged exposure to stress can overwhelm compensatory responses and shorten lifespan (7).
There are many gaps in the research and, thus, great potential to develop the research further. Much of the current information is well demonstrated in simple invertebrates but is less clear in mammals. As a result, clear relationships between stress and longevity are difficult to confirm fully.
6. Social Interactions
According to the stress-buffering hypothesis, social support is beneficial for health and longevity because the presence of a bond with social partners attenuates or eliminates the adverse consequences of prolonged HPA and SAM activation (8).
The stress-buffering hypothesis refers to the ability of social support to reduce the impact of negative life events on an individual’s health status.
As a result, it could be suggested that increased social interaction is extremely important when it comes to longevity.
What is the impact of longevity?
As mentioned in part one of our discussion on life longevity, population longevity is rising. This comes with both positive and negative impacts on society and the economy.
Firstly and on a positive note, people are living longer, due to a whole host of factors and developments around the world – this can be considered a great achievement! The Global Burden of Disease dataset intimates we are both living for longer and are healthier for longer (9).
However, on the flip side, an ageing population brings its own set of challenges – namely, fewer people of working age, lower GDP, and higher health and pension spending. Although these experiences will differ between countries, it is important that societies are given the support they require to adapt to the new norms and changes in age structure.
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are areas of exceptional longevity around the world, which share very similar lifestyles and environments (10). The current Blue Zone areas include Ogliastra in Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan, the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda, California and the island of Ikaria in Greece.
The Blue Zones are said to share the ‘Power of 9’ – 9 evidence-based common denominators among the world’s centenarians that are believed to be linked to their longevity (11).
- Move naturally – existing in environments which require them to move naturally, e.g. walking and gardening.
- Purpose – knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to 7 years of extra life expectancy.
- Downshift – managing stress every day e.g. Ikarians take a nap.
- 80% Rule – stopping eating when their stomachs are 80% full – the 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it.
- Plant slant – consuming a predominantly plant-based diet, with only small amounts of meat, fish, and dairy products.
- Wine @ 5 – drinking alcohol moderately and regularly. It is said that moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers.
- Belong – being part of a close-knit community (civic- or faith-based organisation), as strong social relationships can add years to your life.
- Loved ones first – putting families first – for example, keeping ageing parents and grandparents nearby, committing to a life partner and investing in children with time and love.
- Right tribe – committing to social circles that support healthy behaviours.
Take home points
On the whole, it is clear that longevity is a complex phenomenon! As demonstrated, there are a number of factors which play a part – many of which are beyond our control. However, there are factors that are well within our control.
As a result, we should take matters into our own hands where we can. Those living in Blue Zones are a shining example of this and so trying to adopt some of the Power of 9, to your own degree (if you are not doing so already), is a great way to do so!
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- Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), 318–321.
- Caruso, Calogero, Mattia Emanuela Ligotti, Giulia Accardi, Anna Aiello, Giovanni Duro, Damiano Galimberti, and Giuseppina Candore. 2022. “How Important Are Genes to Achieve Longevity?” International Journal of Molecular Sciences 23, no. 10: 5635.
- Muhammad Zakir Hossin, The male disadvantage in life expectancy: can we close the gender gap?, International Health, Volume 13, Issue 5, September 2021, Pages 482–484
- Frieden T. R. (2010). A framework for public health action: the health impact pyramid. American journal of public health, 100(4), 590–595.
- Ekmekcioglu C. (2020). Nutrition and longevity – From mechanisms to uncertainties. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 60(18), 3063–3082.
- Trichopoulou, A., & Vasilopoulou, E. (2000). Mediterranean diet and longevity. British Journal of Nutrition, 84(S2), S205-S209.
- Epel, E. S., & Lithgow, G. J. (2014). Stress biology and aging mechanisms: toward understanding the deep connection between adaptation to stress and longevity. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 69 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S10–S16.
- Gellert, P., Häusler, A., Suhr, R., Gholami, M., Rapp, M., Kuhlmey, A., & Nordheim, J. (2018). Testing the stress-buffering hypothesis of social support in couples coping with early-stage dementia. PloS one, 13(1), e0189849.
- GBD 2019 Diseases and Injuries Collaborators (2020). Global burden of 369 diseases and injuries in 204 countries and territories, 1990-2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. Lancet (London, England), 396(10258), 1204–1222.
- Poulain, M., Herm, A., & Pes, G. (2013). The Blue Zones: areas of exceptional longevity around the world. Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 11, 87–108.
- Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), 318–321