What is the potential lifespan of a human being? Human lifespans have doubled in the past 150 years, mostly due to better management of infectious diseases and greater access to clean food and water. Lifespans have continued to rise, although much more slowly, over the last few decades. You might wonder where this trend will lead. Can humans live indefinitely? Probably not.
Recently, researchers at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine calculated the maximum lifespan to be 125 years. So far, no human has reached that age, although a French woman who died recently celebrated her 122nd birthday. Still, most of us won’t make it that far. If you want to be around as long as possible, what’s the best diet to help you reach your longevity goal?
Diet and Longevity
Diet is only one factor that contributes to longevity. Genetics play a role as well as factors like how physically active you are and what environmental toxins you’re exposed to. Yet, diet is a factor you can control. You’ve probably heard the saying that we dig our graves with our fork – and there’s truth to this statement. What is the best dietary approach to slow aging and maximize longevity?
Although it’s hard to directly measure the impact diet has on longevity, studies strongly suggest that what you eat makes a difference. For example, “inflammaging” is the idea that aging is caused by chronic, low-grade inflammation. We now know that what we eat influences the inflammatory response. A diet of processed foods and sugar will likely fuel inflammation and increase the risk of age-related diseases, like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. In contrast, a diet rich in whole foods will help suppress the body’s tendency towards inflammation.
Diets of Long-Living Cultures
To look at the role diet plays in aging and longevity, why not turn to cultures that have exceptional longevity? One group that fits this description are the Okinawans, people who live in a group of islands called Okinawa where they enjoy exceptional longevity. In fact, women in Okinawa, on average reach the ripe, old age of 86 and often die of natural causes and remain functional up until their death. Although the Okinawans have lower levels of stress and are more active, their diet is believed to play a role in their longevity. On a given day, they eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables, soy foods, moderate amounts of fish, whole grains, and a minimum of meat or dairy foods.
Another style of eating, the Mediterranean diet, has the distinction of being the world’s healthiest diet. This diverse diet emphasizes whole foods, an abundance of vegetables and fruits as well as nuts, whole grains, beans, and lean protein, typically fish. Food is typically prepared with olive oil, a source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants. The Mediterranean diet has been the focus of a number of studies. What these studies show is following a Mediterranean style of eating lowers the risk of all-cause mortality by 20%. This whole-food based diet is also linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and slower brain aging.
Since inflammation likely plays a strong role in aging and in age-related disease, anything we can do dietarily to keep inflammation in check is advantageous. Unhealthy oils and fats are a contributor to inflammation, particularly processed vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids. Most oils used to make processed foods, corn oil, and soybean oil, fall into this category. That’s one reason processed foods are so unhealthy. Unfortunately, the typical Western diet has a high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 and this is believed to fuel inflammation. Another way to swing the ratio in your favor is to consume more anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Two servings of wild-caught salmon weekly will add more long-chain omega-3s to your diet, the most heart-healthy kind.
Sugar is another probable contributor to inflammation and aging and it’s a source of empty calories as well. Stay away from foods with added sugar and refined carbohydrates, including foods made with white flour, that rapidly raise your blood sugar. Glucose can bind with blood vessels and tissues and form advanced glycation end products (AGEs), that cause damage that contributes to aging.
What SHOULD you eat to reduce the inflammatory response? Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Vegetables and fruits contain phytochemicals that help fight inflammation. Plus, they’re rich in antioxidant vitamins, like vitamins A, C, and E, that help fight cell damage that can trigger inflammation. Don’t forget to munch on a small handful of nuts. A number of studies show nuts have an anti-inflammatory effect and are linked with lower mortality. Make nuts your “go to” snack.
Eating for Longevity
What do all of these eating styles have in common? They emphasize whole foods, mostly plant-based, along with healthy fats and moderate amounts of fish. What they lack are processed foods, foods with added sugar, and lots of red meat.
Other Lifestyle Factors Matter Too
Don’t forget, people who live in Mediterranean countries and, particularly, the Okinawans, are more active than people in Western countries. Therefore, it’s hard to separate out the impact of physical activity versus diet. A number of studies show that people who are more physically active have a longevity advantage. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, leisure time physical activity can add 4.5 years to your life. Plus, if you’re physically active, you’re less likely to enter the later years of life with a physical disability. So, a combination of a healthy, whole food diet with lots of fruits and vegetables combined with exercise is the “sweet spot” for longevity.
Slate. “What’s the Longest Lifespan I Could Have?”
Clin Interv Aging. 2007 Mar; 2(1): 109–115.
Mayo Clinic. “Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan”
NIH Cancer Center. “NIH study finds leisure-time physical activity extends life expectancy as much as 4.5 years”
Harvard Health Publications. “Food that Fight Inflammation”
Science Daily. “Maximum human lifespan has already been reached”
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