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Longevity - What the Research Says

Posted: Fri, April 12, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension

by Davison Westmoreland

The average human life expectancy is currently 67.59 years. Monaco has the highest life expectancy of any country with an average of 89.68 years (the United States ranks 51st, with an average life expectancy of 78.49 years). A growing number of people, however, live past the age of 100. What can you do to live increase your longevity? Research has found that genes determine 20% to 30% of an individual’s longevity, while the remaining 70% to 80% is determined by environmental factors and an individual’s behaviors. (Hjelmborg & Iachine 2006).

(this essay originally appeared in the socraticnewsblog, HERE

Genes: Genes only determine 20% to 30% of an individual’s lifespan. Research has shown that the largest genetic impact occurs after the age of 60 (Hjelmborg & Iachine 2006). Additionally, new research is beginning to show that the effect of genes on longevity could be much larger after the age of 85 (Sebastiani & Solovieff 2010).

  • Sex: Women consistently live longer than men (Austad 2006). In the United States, women live an average of 81.05 years, while men live an average of 76.05 years.
  • Other genetic: Genes impact longevity mainly through their influence on disease. Some diseases are 100% genetically determined such as sickle cell anemia. Most conditions, however, develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. On the bright side, a number of longevity enhancing genes have recently been discovered (Sebastiani & Solovieff 2012).

  • Personality: Personality is also largely genetically determined. Of the Big 5 personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness) conscientiousness is the most related to longevity (Friedman & Tucker 1995). Conscientious individuals are characterized as being well-organized, prudent, and persistent. Inconsistent results have been found in the relationship between other personality traits and longevity.


    Environmental Factors: With the exception of geographic factors and weight, environmental factors primarily influence longevity via their affect on behaviors.


  • Geographic: Those who live in locations with good sanitation, good housing, running water, low crime rates and modern medicine have longer life expectancies. Exposure to toxins such as radon, asbestos, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury, and radiation can reduce life expectancy (Mokdad & Marks 2004). A decrease of 10 μg per cubic meter in concentration of fine particle matter (pollution) is associated with an increase in life expectancy of .61 years (Pope & Ezzati 2009).

  • Culture: Culture can have a large impact on behavior. For example, Seventh Day Adventists (who don’t smoke, don’t drink, eat well, and engage in a number of other healthy behaviors) have been found to have the longest life expectancy of any group in the U.S. (Fraser 1999).

  • Parental divorce: Children of divorced parents died an average of five years earlier than children whose parents remained together. Surprisingly, the death of a parent has no effect on life expectancy (Schwartz & Friedman 1995).  

  • Education: There is a strong relationship between education and mortality (Lleras-Muney 2005). Starting school at an early age has a negative effect on longevity, while skipping a grade appears to have no effect (Kern & Friedman 2009).

  • Income: Individuals with higher levels of income live significantly longer; this is especially true for men (Lin & Rogot 2003).

  • Employment: The life expectancy of unemployed individuals is significantly lower (Lin & Rogot 2003).

  • Weight: A Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 22.5 and 25 kg/m2 is associated with the lowest mortality risk for both men and women (Whitlock and Lewington 2009). Moderate obesity (30.0-35.0 kg/m2) reduces life expectancy by an average of 3 years, while morbid obesity (40.0-50.0 kg/m2) reduces life expectancy by an average of 10 years (Peto & Whitlock 2010).  You can calculate your BMI here.

  • Marriage: Married people live longer than their counterparts. People who stay single have longer a longer life expectancy than those who divorce and remarry. Those who divorce and do not remarry have the lowest life expectancy. Marriage and divorce have a much larger effect on the life expectancy of men compared to women (Tucker & Friedman 1996).

  • Religion: Religious people tend to live longer (McCullough & Hoyt 2000). The positive effect of religion is much more pronounced in women. (McCullough & Friedman 2009).

Behaviors: A number of studies have shown that adopting or eliminating certain behaviors can greatly affect ones’ longevity.

  • Stop Smoking: Men who never smoked have a life expectancy 10.5 years longer than men who smoke until death. Women who never smoked have a life expectancy 8.9 years longer than women who smoke until death. The sooner one quits the greater their life expectancy increases, with most benefits gained if one quits by age 35. Even quitting at age 65 can have a dramatic effect. Men who quit at age 65 gain an average of 2.0 years of life expectancy, while women gain 3.7 years of life expectancy.  (Taylor & Sasselblad 2002)

  • Drink Less: Drinking one to two alcoholic drink has been associated with an increase in life expectancy, while drinking more than two drinks a day decreases life expectancy, with mortality risk increasing the more you drink (Marmot & Brunner 1991).

  • Don’t do drugs: Doing illicit drugs reduces ones’ life expectancy. The type of drug and the quantity and frequency of use determines the adverse effect (Nutt & King 2010).

  • Eat well: Eat less cholesterol (Stamler & Daviglus 2000), sodium (Yang & Liu 2011), meat (Singh & Sabate 2003), trans fat, refined grains, and sugar (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2010). A Mediterranean diet (Perez-Lopez & Chedraui 2009) has consistently been shown to increase longevity. Overall restriction of caloric intake by 20%-30% has also been associated with longevity (Roth & Polotsky 2012).

  • Physical activity: Those high in physical activity live 2.1 years longer than those low in don’t exercise often even after adjusting for age, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index (Pekkanen & Nissinen 1987). Vigorous physical activities have been shown to increase longevity more than moderate or light exercise (Lee & Paffenbarger 2000). The benefits to additional exercise tend to plateau over time or even decline at very high levels.

  • Stand up: Women who reported more than six hours per day of sitting were 37% more likely to die over a given period of time than those who sat fewer than three hours a day. Men who sat more than six hours a day were 18% more likely to die than those who sat fewer than three hours per day. Time spent sitting was associated with mortality even among men and women with the highest levels of physical activity. (Patel & Bernstein 2010) One study found that people who watch television for an average of 6 hours a day can expect to live 4.8 years less than someone who watches no television (Veerman & Healy 2012).

  • Career success: Individuals who experienced success in their careers live much longer than those who don’t (Kern, Friedman & Martin 2009). So, work hard, persevere and accomplish your goals.

  • Social relationships: Individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. (Holt-Lunstad & Smith 2010). Having large social networks and helping those in your social network is also associated with longevity. Pets are not a good substitute. Playing with pets has no effect on life expectancy (Tucker & Friedman 2005).

  • Sleep: People who sleep between 6.5 and 7.4 hours a night have been found to live the longest (Kripke & Garfinkel 2002).


    Additional Points:


  • Happiness Happy people live longer (Diener & Chan 2010). A study of 180 Catholic nuns found that those who had the most positive emotional content in their early-life biographies lived the longest. In fact, there was a 2.5-fold difference between the highest and lowest quartile (Danner & Snowdon 2001). However, most researchers believe that happiness doesn’t cause longevity; rather the same behaviors that lead to longevity also lead to happiness.

  • It’s not too late: Most, if not all of the behavioral changes listed above have been shown to have a positive impact on the elderly.

  • It’s all about the odds: It is possible that an individual who consistently engage in healthy behaviors will still die early, just as it is possible that someone who smokes and doesn’t exercise lives a long time. These, however, are outliers. Engaging in healthy behaviors will improve your odds of living a long life.



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(this essay originally appeared in the socraticnewsblog, HERE

Davison Westmoreland is founder/director of socraticnews.com. He attended University of Virginia, and he now lives in the Washington D.C. area. Contact: davison.westmoreland@socraticnews.com


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