We all know that how long we live -- and how healthy we are -- depends partly on the lottery of birth. It matters how healthy our parents were and how long they lived. It matters whether we drew the fat card, the alcoholism card, the cancer card, or the predisposition to any other disease.
Still and all, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves live longer and feel better, no matter who our parents were, or however much we may have mistreated ourselves in our younger years. If a person smoked when they were young, for example, but has not touched a cigarette in 20 years, their lungs look almost the same as someone who never smoked at all. And even if you spent 40 years sitting at a desk job (like I did), you can go a long way toward improving your heart and lung functions by exercising three or four times a week when you're in your 60s or 70s (I'm trying!).
Don't take my word for it. Consider philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He argued that while we are not complete masters of our fate, we're not passive victims either. We are co-creators of our destiny -- and our longevity -- because while external forces do play a part in determining our actions, we ourselves are an indispensable force, and we can carve out a unique existence even if, as often happens, it does not turn out precisely as planned.
Some people have their own secrets for staying healthy. A fistful of vitamins or glass of wine every day? Never turning on the TV or avoiding social media? Yoga three times a week? Here are a few suggestions that come from my own experience, along with a small dose of research.
Eat a good diet. We've seen the fad diets come and go, but the real answer is no secret. Healthy people avoid too much of the saturated fats in meat and dairy. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. They drink lots of water, tea and coffee, and perhaps a small amount of alcohol, and they consume lots of fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Get plenty of sleep. Various studies have determined that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts the immune system, making our bodies better able to fight off infection. Other research suggests that too little sleep could be linked to an increased risk for stroke and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health..
Get some exercise. Experts argue over how much is enough, but everyone agrees that some is better than none at all. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for two and a half hours per week. We should also engage in some moderate strength training, whether it's lifting weights or doing sit-ups, or digging in the garden and practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that we enjoy so we'll keep doing it on a regular basis.
Drive safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts, airbags and crash zones that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death -- some 40,000 Americans in 2018, according to the National Safety Council. So we should wear our seat belts, put down our cell phones, obey speed limits, and watch out for aggressive drivers. Also, be careful about the side effects of any prescription or over-the-counter medications you may take.
Maintain an active social life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends typically live longer than people who are lonely. Experts say that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of security, promotes healthy behavior, and helps people avoid self-destructive habits like drinking too much. It's just easier to stick to a healthy diet, or an exercise program, if you're doing it with other people.
Stay involved and engaged. 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 not as pronounced. Researchers have concluded that it's not working that makes the difference, but staying engaged in life and involved in something bigger than our own personal problems. Self-sufficiency is not the key to a longer life. Staying connected to a community is the secret.
Relax. Yes, we need to stay involved and engaged. But the experts also say it's important to spend time in silence, in nature, and not be hounded by constant social stimulation. As behavioral geneticist Susan Smalley of UCLA says, "We need time to do nothing, to be our best selves -- well-rounded and creative human beings. The 'doing' side of our nature needs a 'being' side to be in balance."
Go to the doctor. Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should all get the pneumonia vaccine, and every fall the flu vaccine. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, including the much-dreaded colonoscopy that can find and eliminate precancerous polyps. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. So we all need to check our blood pressure, take our medications -- and make all the other lifestyle changes that will allow us to live long and prosper.