Health

10 lifestyle swaps for longevity - a Citro guide

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Statistically, we are destined to live longer lifespans than our grandparents. Health writer Paula Goodyer has summarised the latest longevity science into 10 simple ways to put the quality back into the quantity of extra years we will get

10 evidence-based ways to live longer and better

Longevity is a big buzzword that’s having a glory moment. 

Barely a day seems to go by when there isn’t some hot news about new supplements or technology breakthroughs that can turn back the clock and help us live longer.

Yet many older Australians are living with chronic conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, joint pain or pulmonary conditions that restrict their lifestyle.

The reality is that we are likely to live longer, but not always better.

We asked health writer Paula Goodyer to uncover 10 simple science-backed ways to live longer and stronger. They include:
Eat more whole and plant-based foods
Eat less and try fasting
Move more
Banish belly fat
Tame hypertension
Sleep 7-8 hours a night
Stay friendly and connected
Strength training
Go easy on the alcohol
Find purpose

If you want to embrace simplicity and live your best years for longer, then the advice in this guide will help you do exactly that.

Enjoy it.

The information in this guide is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information in this guide  as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information in this guide or on external sites which are linked from it should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

Meet Professor Luigi Fontana

Living longer is one thing, but how can we also stretch our health span so that we’re still functioning well in our 80s and 90s?  Professor Luigi Fontana has some of the answers. 

He’s the Scientific Director of the Charles Perkins Centre Royal Prince Alfred Clinic and ‘Health for Life’ Program at the University of Sydney, and author of The Path to Longevity: How to reach 100 with the health and stamina of a 40-year-old. Read the professor's three longevity recipes.

1. Eat more whole and plant-based foods

Swapping out some of your meat-based meals for plant-based options can reduce your risk of chronic diseases and increase your lifespan.

Professor Luigi Fontana’s latest book, Manual of Healthy Longevity and Wellbeing, sets out the Modern Longevity Diet, his version of the traditional Mediterranean diet linked to longevity and less chronic disease. 

It goes like this. Vegetables, fruit, legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils, minimally processed wholegrains, nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil form the basis of this diet,  with fish or shellfish two or three times weekly, small amounts of cheese and a few eggs each week, and meat and sweets only occasionally. 

What makes this eating style so good for us? 

It helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure, contributes to a healthy gut and reduces two processes linked to ageing and disease. 

One is oxidative stress, caused by low levels of antioxidants, which can damage cells and DNA.

 The other is chronic inflammation - invisible low grade inflammation in the body caused by factors like unhealthy diets, obesity, smoking and stress, and which contributes to many chronic diseases, Fontana explains.  

“Getting more of our protein from plant sources has a number of advantages - legumes, wholegrains and nuts are high in fibre which helps good gut microbes to thrive - and many of these microbes produce substances called short chain fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory. 

“These foods also contain plant sterols which help reduce cholesterol and reduce absorption of carcinogens. Unlike meat, they’re also low in saturated fat.”

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success.  There’s lots of recipe inspiration for cooking with legumes and wholegrains online - try Meatless Monday or the recipes provided here from the Modern Longevity Diet book. Forget snack foods and eat raw unsalted nuts instead - a handful 5 times a week is linked to a 40 to 60% lower risk of heart disease, Luigi says. 

Blend and sip  

Smoothies are an easy way to add more wholefoods to your diet - adding a dash of tofu, nuts yoghurt and legumes to a smoothie can turn it into a deliciously quick and healthy meal. See Citro’s smoothie recipes for healthy ageing.

Better food also improves mood

Eating more plant-based wholefoods is great for overall nutrition. Foods rich in fibre, polyphenols, prebiotics and probiotics also support a diverse gut microbiome, which Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre research reveals can also improve anxiety and depression.  

2. Eat less often

Most of us have heard about intermittent fasting, but not many of us understand why turning on our insulin stores less frequently can help us live longer.

Rethink how often you eat. It’s not just what we eat that matters - but how often, says Luigi - our ancestors didn’t have 3 meals a day with snacks in between. 

“People snack even if they’re not hungry but our bodies aren’t designed to eat so often during the day,” he says.

“Each time we eat we produce insulin to control our blood glucose - and one effect of turning insulin on too often is that it inhibits the processes that help repair damage to our body’s cells. We know that when cells accumulate damage they’re more vulnerable to diseases, including cancer and dementia.”

But putting more time between meals without prompting insulin into action by snacking helps trigger processes that enhance DNA repair and clean up cells, keeping them in good shape, he explains. 

Stretching our overnight ‘fast’ between dinner and breakfast is one way to do this.

“Eat an early dinner and don’t snack at night - that way you’re not activating the insulin pathway again until you eat breakfast the next day,” he says.  

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success: You’re less likely to snack if meals include more filling, fibre-rich foods like wholegrains and legumes.  And if you feel a little hungry, that’s no bad thing, Luigi adds - it means your stomach is producing a hormone called grehlin which can inhibit inflammation. 

Fasting

Intermittent fasting - cycle between eating normal meals either in a 24-hour period - fast for 12 hours and eat for the remaining 12, for example.  

5:2 diet - eat a healthy diet for 5 days a week and fewer kilojoules for 2 days. Luigi recommends eating non-starchy vegetables like cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, radish, salad greens, beetroot, raw or cooked –  dressed with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, one to two days a week.

Time-restricted eating - eat between certain times, such as 10am to 6pm with no snacking outside these times.

Eat-stop-eat - fast for a 24-hour period one or twice a week.

What is autophagy?

Fasting triggers a process called autophagy, where our cells clean out damaged or dysfunctional components. Autophagy acts like cellular "spring cleaning" by preventing the buildup of toxic cellular debris.

3. Move, thrive, exercise

Exercise and movement are the best antidote to frailty - it will keep you strong and prevent cardiovascular problems which are one of Australia’s biggest killers.

Take a regular dose of this anti-ageing pill.    

The closest thing to a wonder drug for healthy longevity is exercise, say US researchers at the University of Virginia.

Their review of research into exercise and health span shows a running figure depicting how exercise benefits different parts of the body: a heart that works better, a brain that resists shrinkage and a lower risk of cancer

It’s like a multi-purpose pill for cardiovascular disease that lowers the risk of a heart attack, stroke or artery disease by 30 to 40%, says Professor Daniel Green of the University of Western Australia’s School of Human Sciences. 

“Besides helping control levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin, and helping keep body fat and inflammation in check, it has a direct effect on your heart and arteries,” he says.

“With exercise, your heart rate and blood pressure temporarily increase, driving blood flow around the body and through the heart. This stimulates the inner lining of your heart and arteries to release beneficial hormones that prevent the development of artery disease.” 

Exercise also has a profound effect on brain health both in young and older adults, adds Fontana. “It helps protect memory, enhances attention, thinking and the ability to process information in both young and old adults. “

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:  Make exercise a priority, not an afterthought.  Schedule it into your day. Find more reasons to move:  skip the lift and take the stairs, walk up escalators, walk around while you’re on the phone, find ways to meet friends and move - like a walk, then coffee.  Increasing the intensity of exercise - jogging instead of walking or a HIIT class at the gym, for example, has extra benefits. But check with your doctor first, Luigi says - and, if you have joint problems, Luigi suggests talking to a physiotherapist.     

Biomarkers predicting longevity

Scientists are still trying to agree on the best ‘biomarkers’ of ageing that can help predict functional capability at a later age than chronological age will. 

Some common biomarkers that many scientists agree indicate health and longevity include:

  • blood pressure
  • body mass index
  • blood sugar
  • cholesterol

4. Banish belly bulge 

Excess belly fat is linked to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions that limit people’s healthspan and lifespan.  

Too much belly fat is a sign that your abdomen is storing visceral fat  - linked to a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. 

Losing just 8 to 10% of your weight can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, says Luigi. 

But a weight loss diet isn’t the answer, he stresses - it’s about committing to a lifelong healthier way of eating and regular exercise.

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:  Aim to lose 10% of your weight over 6 months to a year rather than attempt quick weight loss which increases the risk of regaining weight, Luigi says. 

Adding 2 sessions of strength training to your exercise routine each week will help you lose weight and maintain weight loss - it increases your resting metabolic rate so that you burn more kilojoules even when you’re not exercising. 

CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet

Weight loss is always challenging. There are a range of online tools and communities to help people successfully lose weight. The eating plan developed by Australia’s science agency, CSIRO, offers a free refund to anyone who follows their program and achieves their healthy weight. Find out more at Total Wellbeing Diet.

5. Tame hypertension 

High blood pressure is often referred to as the silent killer thanks to its links to a range of chronic lifestyle diseases. It’s best to monitor your blood pressure regularly - many pharmacies now offer free blood pressure checks if you can’t make it to the doctor.

Know your blood pressure and keep it healthy. 

A healthy blood pressure reading is 120 mm Hg over 80 mm Hg or lower. 

Sticking to it reduces the risk of many problems that can dog us as we age - think heart disease, stroke, atrial fibrillation, kidney disease - and vascular dementia , the second most common dementia after Alzheimer’s. 

If blood pressure is too high, lifestyle changes can sometimes be enough to lower it without medication.  

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success: Regular exercise, staying at a healthy weight, eating more vegetables, avoiding added salt and highly processed foods, and going easy on alcohol can help keep blood pressure healthy. Herbs and spices, especially fresh garlic, chilli, ginger, coriander, parsley and basil boost flavour without needing salt.  

DASH diet for blood pressure

Like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet - which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension - is known for helping older people stay healthier.

It’s a healthy-eating plan designed by American researchers to help prevent or treat high blood pressure, also called hypertension. It can be combined with the Mediterranean diet, too.

It also may help lower cholesterol linked to heart disease, called low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

High blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol levels are two major risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Foods in the DASH diet are rich in the minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium.

The DASH diet focuses on vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It includes fat-free or low-fat dairy products fish, poultry, beans and nuts.

6. Snooze so you don’t lose 

Quality sleep is easier said than done, as many people tend to sleep less as they age. But the science is clear: sleeping more than 7 hours a night can help regulate the body’s inflammatory processes and is linked to better health outcomes. 

Prioritise sleep - and help head off dementia.  

Our brains have a system for getting rid of waste while we sleep, flushing out toxins and harmful proteins linked to some types of dementia - one study found that people sleeping 5 hours or less a night had double the risk of dementia compared to those getting 7 or 8 hours.

Lack of sleep is also linked to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:  Better sleep is another reason to be physically active - just avoid strenuous exercise in the evening when it can disrupt sleep, says Fontana. Other strategies to get more sleep include:

  • avoiding blue light like LED screens and electronic devices for an hour before bed
  • learn something new - stimulating the brain during the day can help us sleep better at night
  • try playing  ‘pink noise’, or soundtracks of nature like ocean waves, wind rustling through trees or waterfalls to screen out distracting noises.

Sleep treats

Try Citro’s guide to natural ways to get more sleep.

Get the right sleep hygiene habits in place to protect your health. Understand how supplements can help, or try herbal teas (you can even grow your own).

Heard of telomeres?

Telomeres are the protective caps on the end of our chromosomes (or genes) - they get shorter as we age. Scientists are examining whether telomeres are a good indicator of our healthspan, but there is not yet clear science about how telomeres - and telomerase -  relate to human longevity.

7. Friendship and social connection 

The value of companions and social bonds cannot be overstated - engaging with friends, families and our community delivers a profound sense of belonging that has been shown to extend our lives and prevent dementia

When it comes to longevity and preventing dementia, the loudest messages are about food and fitness - but we underestimate how important social relationships are to our health, says clinical psychologist Dr Suraj Samtani, whose research this year found that interacting with others reduces the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia, and increases longevity.

“The evidence is very strong. We found that frequent interactions with family or friends, monthly or weekly, and having someone to talk to reduced dementia risk.

“We also found that living with others and doing community activities reduced the risk of dying,” adds Dr Samtani, a researcher with the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at the University of NSW. 

“We think that living with others may have a positive effect on the immune system and help reduce stress. Having people to talk to and confide in helps buffer us from stress and we know that increased stress drives chronic inflammation which in turn contributes to chronic disease. 

“Previous research has also suggested that loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:   Try to meet with friends and family at least once a month, join in community activities like volunteering or a local club  - and open up to someone when you  feel stressed. 

Social bonds

The benefits of friends and strong social bonds lead to a more fulfilling life, irrespective of age. There are also theories that being connected to other people helps us maintain healthier habits and deal with our stress.

8. Muscle up 

Building strength through regular training helps preserve and possibly increase muscle mass, which naturally declines with age - the science is clear that more muscle means better health and ageing.  

Muscle is an older body’s best friend. 

Maintaining it with strength training  fights frailty and loss of independence - and it’s the perfect partner for aerobic exercise. 

“The evidence so far suggests that both strength training and moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic activity such as running, cycling or swimming may reduce the risk of mortality more than doing either of these alone,” says Dr Terry Boyle from the Australian Centre for Precision Health at the University of South Australia.  

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:   Finding the right gym or community exercise program where you can learn to strength train is an investment in good health and function.  Or learn the basics of strength training without a gym with resources online like Exercise Right which has a range of home workouts.

The sit to stand test

This test of going from a seated position to a standing position from a standard chair can be a good measure of lower body strength, especially in older adults. 

  • Chair seat to be 48cm.
  • Chair to be placed against a wall.
  • Arms to be crossed over the chest.
  • Start a stopwatch and stand up and sit down as quickly as possible 5 times, keeping your arms folded across your chest.
  • Stop timing when the participant stands for the 5th time or measure how many repetitions can be done in a 30-second or 1-minute window.

You can also test your balance.

Strength = independence

Maintaining muscle strength is closely tied to being more independent and less frail - older people who have the strength to carry shopping, get up and down stairs and walk unassisted are more able to age in place. Ageing in place is the ability to live in your own home or community safely and independently, regardless of age or income.

9. Go easy on the alcohol

Easing off the alcohol is not only good for your bank balance but improves sleep quality and elevates your mood.    

Remember when alcohol had its good-for-you moment in the 1990s - and red wine was almost up there with green tea? 

Science’s grasp of alcohol’s effects has since moved on and there are good reasons to go easy on alcohol - dementia is one of them, says Associate Professor Louise Mewton, also from CHeBA.   

Sticking to a low risk level of drinking to reduce the risk of alcohol-related disease or injury means no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.   

“Yet almost one in 5 Australians in their 60s drink more than this,” she says. 

“As for a safe - not just low risk - level of daily drinking, research suggests it’s only 0.6 of a standard drink, the equivalent of about 60 mls of wine. But to avoid cancer, the safest amount is zero.” 

Want to ease off on your drinking?  Cancer Council Victoria has good ideas and tips.

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success:  The boom in no alcohol beer, wine and spirits makes it easier to switch between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks - or replace booze altogether. Or try alternating alcohol with sparkling water or soda and lime.

Pills and spills

Alcohol reacts poorly with many prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Read more on HealthDirect.  There's also new research on alcohol and high blood pressure.

10. Find your purpose

Purpose - or understanding your intrinsic motivations - is linked to making healthier lifestyle choices and experiencing less stress.  The Japanese use the word 'ikigai' to describe the value that brings passion and joy to life.

There’s growing evidence linking a strong sense of purpose   to both a lower risk of mortality and of dementia, says CHeBA researcher Dr Karen Mather who studies healthy ageing and longevity.  

But why having meaning and direction in our lives might make us healthier is still guesswork.

“It may be that people with a strong sense of purpose tend to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviours - like regular health checks, being physically active and not smoking, and are more likely to volunteer and stay socially connected. Some research has also linked a strong sense of purpose to greater brain network connectivity and lower levels of stress and inflammation,” she adds. 

An argument for late retirement perhaps- given that work can provide purpose and social connection?  

We don’t know. 

“I can see the advantage of delaying retirement for some people but it’s a complex question - we need more research to know whether or not there’s a benefit,” she says.

Paula Goodyer’s tips for success: Find activities you enjoy that help provide more direction, meaning and structure to your day. Volunteering is one - some studies suggest it has its own health benefits like lower mortality and better physical function.

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