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6 steps to a long and healthy life

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 3/06/2015 Tom Sightings

© OLIVER ROSSI/Corbis

How long we live is often in the hands of our genes. But researchers have established that certain attitudes and behaviors promote health, and will give us a better chance of living out our full life span of 80 or 90 years. Here are six strategies that can have a major impact not only on how long we live, but on how well we will live.

Step 1.  Eat a diet low in saturated fats.

People who live the longest tend to have a diet low in fats that come from meats and diary. They avoid refined sugars, especially those that come in soft drinks. Instead, they drink water or low-fat milk, and consume lots of unprocessed fruits and green vegetables. Many long-lived people drink wine, but in moderation. They drink tea and coffee, again in moderation. The Mayo Clinic points out that high consumption of coffee can lead to high cholesterol levels, but for most people the health benefits of coffee outweigh the risks, because coffee is associated with lower rates of diabetes, cancer and Parkinson's. 

Step 2. Get plenty of sleep.

© Rick Gomez/CORBIS Studies have suggested that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure and also bolsters your immune system. A lack of sleep has been associated with a number of medical problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. And according to one study from Harvard Medical School, people who averaged less than seven hours of sleep a night who were exposed to the cold-causing rhinovirus were three times more likely to develop a cold than those who got eight or more hours of sleep.

Step 3. Get some exercise.

Many studies link a lack of exercise to weight gain and a shorter life span. But you don't have to join a gym and sweat bullets five days a week. Longevity expert Dan Buettner studied old people on the Greek island of Ikaria, where men are four times more likely than Americans to live into their 90s. These people do not go to the gym or run marathons. But they do get a fair amount of exercise because they walk almost everywhere they go. And his survey revealed that three-quarters of Ikaria's senior citizens have sex on a regular basis.

Step 4. Maintain an active social life. 

© Ocean/Corbis A study from Brigham Young University showed that people who enjoy a close family life and have plenty of friends live longer than people who are lonely. Nobody knows exactly how the health mechanism works. But some researchers have suggested that being engaged in a community not only gives people a sense of connection and security, but may promote healthy behavior such as exercising, eating well and avoiding self-destructive habits like taking drugs or drinking too much.

Step 5. Keep working, but not too hard.

Mortality tables show that death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. The mortality trends for women are similar, though less pronounced. While some of the disparity is because healthy people are more likely to keep working, researchers have concluded that staying engaged in life is what prolongs life. That doesn't mean you have to keep a job that causes high stress levels. It means staying active and productive. Take your cue from the long-lived Okinawans. The word retirement does not exist in their language. They typically keep working until their 70s, and when they do stop, they usually volunteer or mentor younger colleagues. 

Step 6.Make it a group effort. 

Friends eating healthy food. © Monkey Business Images/REX Friends eating healthy food. It's more difficult to live a healthy lifestyle if you try to do it alone, or try to accomplish it amidst a hostile atmosphere. It's hard to stay on a healthy diet if you live alone, right down the street from a fast-food joint. It's much easier if your family gets together every evening for a well-balanced meal. And it's possible to motivate yourself to brave the walking trail on cold winter mornings, but it's much easier if you have a friend to go with you, or if you play a sport with a group of people.

Finding reasons to get up in the morning is just as important in retirement as any financial planning. And if your reasons involve some physical exercise in the company of family or friends, that's even better.

Tom Sightings blogs at Sightings at 60.

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