Two-hundred years ago the average human life was short, brutal, and lasted for just 37 years. In developed countries the standard of living has improved dramatically, and that figure has risen to a much healthier 79 years.
It’s estimated that almost half a million people in the world are now aged 100 or more, and scientists are still divided as to what the theoretical upper limit on a human lifespan might be. Some researchers have even, perhaps rather optimistically, suggested there might not necessarily be an upper limit at all.
The likelihood is that immortality isn’t going to be a practical option, but there are a number of unexpected ways you could potentially add years to your life.
10. Red Hot Chili Peppers
It’s no great secret that there’s a link between diet and lifespan. Unfortunately, the healthier foods that we should be eating tend not to be the most exciting. There is at least one very notable exception to this rule in the form of the red hot chili pepper. With thousands of varieties available, ranging from the relatively pedestrian jalapeno through to the mind-melting heat of the infamous Carolina Reaper, even the most ardent chili-hater couldn’t claim they were a boring vegetable.
While they might not be to everyone’s taste, for those who do like a bit of spice in their life there’s some excellent news. A study of almost half-a-million people in China found that people who consumed spicy food six or seven times a week reduced their overall risk of death by as much as 14%. These findings have recently been almost exactly replicated in a smaller-scale study conducted in the United States.
It seems that red hot chili peppers might be the most super of all superfoods. Quite why this might be isn’t entirely clear, but scientists believe it’s most likely linked to a compound known as capsaicin.
The hotter the chili the greater the concentration of capsaicin, but it’s wise to exercise a certain amount of caution when it comes to the fieriest varieties of all. Peppers at the blisteringly hot end of the Scoville scale can cause retching, hyperventilating, and in extreme cases even death.
Eating the right food is an important ingredient for a long life, but how often we eat might be just as important. A recent Harvard study suggests that intermittent fasting can slow down the aging process.
When the body lacks food it enters into survival mode. The liver, the kidney, and the immune system all shrink, as they aren’t the body’s immediate priority at that time. The theory is that when the fast ends the body makes its repairs. As it does so it replaces older cells with newer, more efficient versions. There’s even some suggestions that fasting, when combined with chemotherapy, is effective at eradicating cancerous cells in mice, although there’s still some way to go to establish whether the same is true for humans.
While studies suggest there may be significant benefits, fasting is difficult, and for some people it can even be dangerous. A less extreme alternative, which seems to do more-or-less the same job, is a diet with heavily reduced calorie intake on certain days.
8. An Injection of Young Blood
The miracle of modern medicine has played a major role in allowing people to live longer than ever before. Unfortunately, these advances have often been made by experimenting on animals.
One particularly gruesome example is parabiosis, whereby two animals are anatomically joined in such a way that they share a circulatory system. By this means researchers have discovered that the blood of a healthy young mouse has an astonishing rejuvenating effect on an older animal. Brain function improves, tissues repair themselves more quickly, and organs throughout the body become more efficient.
In mice the ravages of old age are largely swept away, and some scientists believe blood transfusions might be capable of producing similar results in humans. The idea is controversial, and the science is still very much inconclusive, but the treatment is already beginning to be made available.
In 2017 a California-based company named Ambrosia offered people the opportunity to be injected with young blood, at least so long as they had $8,000 to spare. It remains to be established whether this will genuinely combat the aging process, or if blood will prove to be 21st century snake oil.
Whatever the results might be, this one is very much filed under the category of don’t try this at home.
7. Precisely the Right Amount of Sleep
The average person spends around one-third of their life sleeping, but exactly why they need to do so is still something of a mystery. While the mechanisms are still not fully understood, we do know that sleep is vital to maintaining mental and physical health. Curiously enough it has to be almost exactly the right amount of sleep; it turns out that too much might be even more harmful than too little.
Children and adolescents need more, and pensioners can get by on less, but for everyone else seven hours of sleep each night seems to be the sweet spot. For anyone hitting that target, the health benefits are extraordinary. Professor Matthew Walker of the University of California goes so far as to claim that sleep is even more important to maintaining good health than diet or exercise.
The figures are certainly rather striking. Research indicates that people who sleep for six hours or less are at a 12% increased mortality risk. Perhaps more surprising is that this risk rises to a huge 30% for those who slumber for nine hours or more per day.
6. Flossing and Brushing
Dentists recommend that we should spend two minutes brushing our teeth in the morning and the same again in the evening. This doesn’t represent a huge investment of time, but around one-in-three Americans don’t meet this minimum requirement. When it comes to flossing the figures are even worse, with a mere 16 percent reporting that they floss every day.
The fraction of people who do strive to maintain excellent oral health are at substantially lower risk of cavities and gum disease, but there are a host of rather more surprising health benefits too.
Studies have linked regular brushing and flossing with a reduced risk of dementia, diabetes, lung disease, and in particular heart disease.
It might seem somewhat fantastical that dental hygiene might have such an impact on general health, but there are good reasons for believing it might be true. When plaque is allowed to build-up around the teeth, it becomes a feeding ground for millions of bacteria. If these bacteria find their way into the bloodstream, they are free to hitch a lift around the body.
5. Living at Altitude
With an average life expectancy of just 53 years, the Central African nation of Chad has amongst the worst mortality rates in the world. It’s not surprising that an impoverished nation would lag well behind the far wealthier and more developed West. What is shocking is that there is such a wide variation in life expectancy even within the richest nation in the world.
A comprehensive study, which spanned more than three decades, ranked every US state for life expectancy. While residents of parts of South Dakota averaged just 66.8 years, Colorado came in at top of the pile, with some regions exceeding South Dakota by almost twenty years.
Colorado is relatively wealthy, which certainly helps, but it’s by no means the wealthiest state, so it seems that some other factor may be at play.
At 6,800 feet above sea level, Colorado is the highest state in the United States of America, and several studies have indicated that high altitudes are the healthiest place to be. The reduced oxygen levels are believed to hinder the growth of certain types of cancer, and encourage the heart to produce more blood vessels, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease.
Obviously there are limits, and extreme heights can lead to the unpleasant symptoms of altitude sickness, such as dizziness, nausea, and even death.
4. Learning a Second Language
The human brain is the most complex thing in the universe, at least so far as we know. It’s sometimes said that if it were simple enough to understand, we would be far too simple to understand it.
We do know that it hits peak efficiency at around 22 years of age, and that it declines, and for most people even physically shrinks, as we enter old age. Fortunately, there do seem to be several ways this decline can be delayed, and the act of learning a second language seems to be one of the most effective preventative measures possible.
Studies have shown that bilinguals enjoy a far greater degree of resilience to Alzheimer’s and dementia than people who speak just one language. While the benefits are greatest for those who have been multilingual since childhood, they remain present for anybody willing to take up the challenge of learning a new language at any age.
3. Regular Cups of Coffee
Coffee is the most popular beverage in the world. The global market is worth more than $20 billion a year, around 2.25 billion cups are consumed every day, and there’s even evidence to suggest it could add months to your life.
The results of a study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggested that regular coffee drinkers enjoy extra resistance to heart disease and diseases of the gut. Three cups of coffee a day seems to be just about the optimum number, adding about nine minutes to your life each day.
Exactly what it is about coffee that bestows these health benefits is not at all clear, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be caffeine. Research suggests that it makes little-to-no difference whether the coffee is caffeinated, ground, instant, or filtered.
This is all very good news for coffee drinkers, particularly as the drink was previously linked with potential health problems.
2. A Good Social Life
Any research into human longevity is fraught with difficulties. Human beings live complicated lives. How long these lives last is influenced by so many factors, both genetic and lifestyle related, that it’s hugely difficult to separate correlation from causation.
Having said that, there is one variable that has been identified again and again as perhaps the single most important factor in a long, healthy life. Humans are social animals, and the evidence suggests that people who maintain regular contact with friends and relatives are far more likely to live well into old age than more solitary individuals.
It’s well known that social interaction is important for mental health. Solitary confinement is so harmful for humans that some experts have called for it to be classified as torture. A busy social life has been linked to real physical benefits such as lower blood pressure and a boost to the immune system. The impact is so great that a 2008 study claimed that strong social ties can be as beneficial as giving up a 15 cigarettes-per-day smoking habit.
1. Owning a Pet
Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that Hell is other people. For those of a similar bent of mind to the French philosopher, but who would still appreciate the extra years of life associated with regular social interaction, there is an alternative. A growing body of evidence suggests that pet owners tend to live longer, healthier lives than the rest of us.
In certain respects this is not terribly surprising, responsible dog owners who takes their pet for regular walks will reap the rewards of regular exercise. However, the benefits seem to go much further than this and aren’t confined to canines alone. Cat owners are less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, and according to a study conducted by the Minnesota Stroke Institute their risk of suffering a heart attack is cut by almost a third.
Even pets that couldn’t easily be described as cute and cuddly can still be beneficial; there’s evidence to suggest that simply watching fish swimming around a tank can lower blood pressure and heart rate.