Longevity seems to run in families. If you talk to people who live to be 90 years of age and older, many will tell you they had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who occupied this earth for a long time. No doubt genetics are one factor that influences longevity. In fact, several years ago, scientists identified a group of genetic markers that predicted with 77% accuracy whether someone would reach an unusually old age.
Of course, this means genetics CAN’T predict longevity 23% of the time. That’s the part we have control over – nutrition, physical activity and avoiding bad habits like smoking. What determines how long we live is an interaction between genetics and environment.
The Number One Longevity Habit
One longevity habit strongly supported by research is exercise. A study published in PLOS Medicine showed men and women who get the recommended amount of physical activity, 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, can anticipate an additional 3.4 years of life compared to sedentary folks. Based on this study, those who exercise twice this amount might enjoy an additional 4.2 years of life. You gotta love statistics like that!
What’s interesting is exercise seems to increase lifespan in people of all sizes and weights, those who are normal weight, underweight and obese, regardless of weight. If there’s one thing you can do to prolong your lifespan and avoid disability, exercise is it.
How likely are you to live a long time? Over the years, researchers have discovered certain “markers” that suggest you’re more likely to make it to an older age. They say something about your overall health and potential for living a long life. Here are some you should know about:
Do you strut past people when you’re out and about because you walk so fast? It could be a sign you’ll live longer. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a link between walking speed and mortality among older women. Women that walked at the fastest pace during their mid-seventies had a 91% chance of seeing their 85th birthday. In contrast, only 35% of the slowest walkers could expect to blow out the candles on their birthday cake at age 85.
Of course, there are a number of factors at play here. Senior women could walk slower because they already have health problems that put them at higher risk for mortality. Still, a fast walking speed seems to be a marker for a body that’s healthier and more likely to survive to a ripe, old age. Keep in mind you’ll walk faster if you stay physically fit through exercise and resistance training. See how aging is so closely aligned with exercise?
Quick, quick, how fast can you react? Faster reaction speeds say something about how youthful and agile your brain is. Reaction time decreases with age, so you have to take age into account when you consider your reaction speed. A study published in PLOS One showed a link between reaction speed and mortality due to heart disease as well as all-cause mortality. Interestingly, the authors in this study found reaction time to be as powerful at predicting death as the deadly habit of smoking.
How fast is your reaction time? You can test it on a number of online sites. These sites usually ask you to hit your mouse when you see a dot on the screen change color. Some sites have a list of the reaction times of other people who have visited the site so you can see how you compare.
A normal pulse rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Generally, a slower pulse rate, especially in a healthy person who exercises, is a marker of health. A healthy heart that’s conditioned from aerobic exercise has a higher stroke volume and can pump out more blood with each beat. As a result, it doesn’t have to pump as many times per minute to deliver oxygen to tissues. Resting pulse rate is a reasonable marker of cardiovascular health and fitness if you’re healthy, but if you have certain heart conditions or take some medications, your heart rate may be artificially slow.
Heart Rate Recovery
How fast your heart rate slows down or recovers after a bout of exercise says something about how healthy your heart is and your risk of mortality. This is referred to as heart rate recovery. You can test it for yourself.
Measure your resting pulse rate and write it down. Then approximate your heart rate maximum by subtracting your age from 220. Write that value down. Exercise until your heart rate reaches 65% to 85% of your heart rate maximum. When you’re within that range, stop exercising and take your pulse for 6 seconds. Multiply by 10 to get your heart rate per minute. Rest 60 seconds and then re-check your pulse. Compare the two values. The greater the difference between the two values, the better. If your pulse rate drops by more than 12 beats per minute that’s a sign of cardiovascular health and fitness.
Whether You Can Rise from a Sitting Position without Using Your Hands
A general measure of flexibility, balance and muscle strength is whether you can rise from a sitting position without using your hands for balance or to push yourself up. Research shows this simple test is a predictor of mortality. Here’s how to do it:
From a standing position and without touching or leaning on anything, lower yourself onto the floor and assume a sitting position. Once sitting, stand back up without placing your hands, arms, knees or sides of your legs on the floor. The test is scored using a 10-point scale, 5 points for sitting and 5 for standing. If you lose your balance during sitting or standing, subtract a half point. If you have to use an arm, leg or knee to get up or down, subtract 1 point. If you score at least 8 points, you’re doing okay.
The Bottom Line
Genetics may be a factor in longevity, but you can potentially extend your lifespan by more than 4 years by doing one simple thing – exercising. Keep on pumping iron and improving your cardiovascular health.
Huffington Post 50 “Walking Speed Could Predict Life Span in Seniors: Study
Live Science. “Longevity Genes Predict Whether You’ll Live Past 100”
PLOS Medicine. “Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity and Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis” November 6, 2012.
National Cancer Institute. “NIH study finds leisure-time physical activity extends life expectancy as much as 4.5 years”
PLOS One. “Reaction Time and Mortality from the Major Causes of Death: The NHANES-III Study” January 29, 2014.
Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Vol. 38, No. 7, 2001.
European Journal of Preventive Cardiology December 13, 2012 204748731247175.
Discover Magazine. “Simple Sitting Test Predicts How Long You’ll Live” September 8, 2014.
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