The editors at AARP have filtered through numerous medical journals and studies to identify the best actions you can take to achieve a longer, fuller life. We know there are no guarantees. But genetics account for just 25 percent of a person’s longevity. The rest is up to you. With this collection of some of the most important longevity findings, you’ll have the road map you need to get to 80, 90, 100 or beyond.
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1. Frozen is fine
You can eat a balanced diet even when fresh fruits and vegetables are out of season because frozen can be as good as or even better for life-extending nutrients. British scientists found that fresh fruit can lose nutrients after three days of refrigeration, while frozen fruits don’t suffer the same fate. Another study similarly found that frozen blueberries contained more vitamin C than fresh ones.
2. Cut back on pain pills
Regular use of painkillers such as ibuprofen and naproxen — including over-the-counter brands such as Advil, Motrin and Aleve — may raise your risk of heart attack and stroke by 10 percent, according to a 2014 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel review. (Prescription-strength versions may increase your risk by 20 to 50 percent, even after just a few weeks of use.) Reserve these drugs for severe pain, and use the lowest possible dose for the shortest amount of time.
3. Please go to bed
Consistently sleeping less than six hours a night nearly doubles your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a review of 15 studies published in the European Heart Journal. Another study found that consistently sleep-deprived people were 12 percent more likely to die over the 25-year study period than those who got six to eight hours of sleep a night. These tips from the National Sleep Foundation can help ensure that you get good quality shut-eye, even if you’re among the half of people over 60 who have insomnia:
- Make the room pitch-black dark, and set the thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees.
- Exercise every day. It doesn’t matter what time of day you work out, just so it doesn’t interfere with your rest.
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.
- Shut down your electronics an hour before retiring, as the light from some devices can stimulate the brain.
- Replace your mattress if it’s more than 10 years old.
4. But don’t always go right to sleep
A Duke University study that followed 252 people for 25 years concluded that frequent sex “was a significant predictor of longevity” for men.
5. Get (or stay) hitched
Marriage truly is good for your health — and your longevity. The prestigious Framingham Offspring Study found that married men had a 46 percent lower risk of death than never-married men, in part due to marriage’s well-known impact on heart health. Indeed, a 2014 study by New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that married men and women had a 5 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
6. Ripeness matters
No, you won’t die from eating under-ripe produce, but new research shows that fully ripened fruit has more life-lengthening health benefits. For example, green bananas are low in fiber and high in astringent tannins that can cause constipation. Fully ripened pears and blackberries have more disease-fighting antioxidants. And in watermelon, a deep red color signifies more lycopene, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
7. Don’t sweeten with sugar
A high-sugar diet boosts blood sugar, which in turn plays havoc with your heart by increasing levels of LDL cholesterol while lowering heart-friendly HDL cholesterol, and tripling your risk for fatal cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar a day, and men no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams).
8. Consider extra vitamin D
Vitamin D, a bright byproduct of sunlight, has many health benefits, including a link to longevity. But too much vitamin D increases your risk of dying as much as too little, according to a 2015 Danish study. So you want to get the right amount. Don’t just rely on outdoor time to get extra vitamin D; the rate of skin cancer rises as we age, so it’s important to limit exposure. The smart plan: Ask your doctor if you would benefit from extra D in pill form. University of Copenhagen researchers found that the ideal vitamin D level is more than 50 nanomoles per liter of blood, but less than 100 nmol/L.
9. Go green
If coffee’s not your thing, green tea also has proven longevity cred, likely because it contains powerful antioxidants known as catechins that may help combat diabetes and heart disease. In a large study of more than 40,000 Japanese men and women, drinking five or more cups of green tea a day was associated with a 12 percent decrease in mortality among men and a 23 percent decrease among women.
10. Vacation … or Else
Not taking time off work might, indeed, be deadly. One study of men at high risk for coronary artery disease found that those who failed to take annual vacations were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. And in the long-running Framingham Heart Study, women who vacationed just once every six years were eight times more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a heart attack than women who vacationed twice a year.
11. Eat whole grains
The average American eats one serving of whole grains daily — and that may be just a single morning slice of toast. But eating three or more servings each day can cut overall death rate by about 20 percent, according to a 2016 study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Have some oatmeal or brown rice, or get adventurous and go for quinoa, barley, even farro.
12. Spice it up
Eating hot chili peppers may add years to your life. In a 2016 analysis of the dietary habits of more than 16,000 men and women over 23 years, those who reported eating hot peppers reduced their risk of dying by 13 percent. Not a fan of those peppers? Even a little spice can have health benefits. That’s because the body produces endorphins to reduce the heat from the capsaicin in the peppers; those endorphins also reduce pain and inflammation.
13. Drink whole milk
You’ve been told forever to drink low-fat or skim milk, or go for fat-free yogurt. But research published in the journal Circulation in 2016 concluded that those who consumed the most dairy fat had a 50 percent lower risk of developing diabetes, a disease that can shorten your life by eight to 10 years on average.
14. Just add water
Staying adequately hydrated — measured by urine that’s light yellow or straw colored — can also help prolong a healthy life by reducing the risk of bladder and colon cancer and keeping kidneys in tip-top shape. Bonus: It might even help you lose weight. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that those who sipped more H2O ended up eating 68 to 205 fewer calories per day.
15. Say yes to that extra cup
Coffee does more than help you wake up; it also reduces your risk of stroke, diabetes and some cancers. And in a 2015 study published in the journal Circulation, Harvard researchers discovered that “people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had about a 15 percent lower [risk of premature] mortality compared to people who didn’t drink coffee,” says coauthor Walter Willett, M.D. Mind you, a cup is 8 ounces, so your 16-ounce Starbucks grande is really two cups by that measure.
16. Live like the Amish
A University of Maryland study found that Amish men live longer than typical Caucasian men in the United States, and both Amish men and women have lower rates of hospitalization. What are the Amish ways? Lots of physical activity, less smoking and drinking, and a supportive social structure involving family and community.
17. End the day’s eating by 9 p.m.
Not only is eating late bad for your waistline — sleeping doesn’t exactly burn lots of calories — it also increases the risk of heart disease by 55 percent for men ages 45 to 82, according to a Harvard study.
18. Eat your veggies
In a study of 73,000 adults, most in their mid to upper 50s, vegetarians were 12 percent less likely than carnivores to have died from any cause during the six-year study period. The 2016 study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that mortality rates were lowest overall for pesco-vegetarians (those who eat fish occasionally), followed by vegans (those who eat no animal products), and lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who eat dairy and eggs).
19. Eat like the Greeks
The Mediterranean diet, with its reliance on fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and nuts, is one of the healthiest diets for both overall health and longevity. Harvard researchers, reporting in the BMJ in 2014, found that those who followed the diet most closely had longer telomeres, which cap the end of each strand of DNA and protect chromosomes from damage. Even those who only sporadically followed the diet reaped longevity benefits, researchers found.
20. Eat less
If you want to reach 100, put down the fork, says Dan Buettner, who studies longevity hot spots around the world, such as Okinawa, Japan. Buettner found that the oldest Okinawans stop eating when they feel 80 percent full. A National Institutes of Health-funded study similarly found that cutting back calories reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin resistance.
21. Drink less (here’s a trick)
More-than-moderate alcohol consumption (generally, more than one drink a day for women or more than two a day for men) leads to a shorter life span. Here’s one way to cut your intake: Pour red wine into a white-wine glass, which is narrower. Studies by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that people poured 12 percent more into red-wine glasses. You’ll also pour less wine into your glass if it’s sitting on the table, instead of in your hand, says Brian Wansink, the lab’s director.
22. Save your pennies
Money might not make you happier, but it will help you live longer. A 2016 study by Stanford researchers published in JAMA found that people whose income bracket was in the top 1 percent lived nearly 15 years longer than those in the bottom 1 percent. The disparity could be attributed to healthier behaviors in higher-income groups, including less smoking and lower obesity rates, researchers say.
23. Or move to one of these states
If you’re not wealthy, consider moving to California, New York or Vermont, where studies show that low-income people tend to live the longest. Loma Linda, Calif., has the highest longevity thanks to vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists, who live eight to 10 years longer than the rest of us. Nevada, Indiana and Oklahoma have the lowest life expectancy (less than 78 years).
24. Ponder a Ponderosa
Experiencing a sense of awe — such as when viewing the Grand Canyon or listening to Beethoven’s Ninth — may boost the body’s defense system, says research from the University of California, Berkeley. “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” says Dacher Keltner, a psychologist and coauthor of the study.
25. Get a friend with four legs
A few studies on the link between pet ownership and health have found that owning a pet can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, even improve the odds of surviving a heart attack. Now the American Heart Association has weighed in with a report published in the journal Circulation that recommends owning a dog, in particular, for those seeking to reduce their risk of deadly heart disease. Dog owners are more likely to be physically active and are also less vulnerable to the effects of stress, the report says.
26. Find your purpose
Do you wake up looking forward to something? In a 2014 study published in the Lancet, researchers found that those with the highest sense of purpose were 30 percent less likely to die during the 8.5-year study period. In fact, doing something that matters — whether it’s helping your children or interacting in a community of like-minded folks — is correlated with seven extra years of life, according to researchers who study people in “blue zones,” areas of the world where folks live the longest.
27. Embrace your faith
Attending religious services once a week has been shown to add between four and 14 years to life expectancy, according to researchers who study blue zones. Don’t belong to a church? Ask to join a friend at her services, or just drop in at a nearby house of worship; most have an open-door policy.
28. Be food safe
About 3,000 Americans die from food poisoning annually, say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even seemingly healthy foods — like sprouts, cantaloupe, berries and raw tuna — can make you sick or even kill you, says the FDA. Your action plan: Keep your kitchen pristine, wash your hands and utensils before and after handling food, separate raw and cooked foods, refrigerate perishable food promptly, and cook food to a safe temperature to kill deadly bacteria.
29. Consider mountain life
People residing at higher altitudes tend to live longer, a study by the University of Colorado and the Harvard School of Global Health revealed. Of the 20 healthiest counties in America, many are in Colorado and Utah. Researchers think lower oxygen levels might cause your body to adapt in ways that strengthen your heart and circulation.
30. Go nuts
In a European study of adults ages 55 to 69, those who ate 10 grams of nuts daily — 8 almonds or 6 cashews — reduced their risk of death from any health-related cause by 23 percent. As for specific ailments, consuming a handful of nuts at least five times per week lowers the mortality risk for heart disease (by 29 percent), respiratory disease (24 percent) and cancer (11 percent), according to a previous U.S. study. Sorry, peanut butter fans: Spreads didn’t show the same benefits.
31. Keep watching LOL cat videos
Laughter really is the best medicine, helping to reduce stress, boost the immune system, reduce pain and improve blood flow to the brain. In fact, laughter has the same effect on blood vessels as exercise, report researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
32. Get social
Studies show that loneliness increases the risk of early death by 45 percent. It weakens the immune system and raises blood pressure while increasing the risk for heart attacks and stroke. By contrast, people with strong ties to friends and family have as much as a 50 percent lower risk of dying, according to a study in PLOS Medicine. So visit a friend. And don’t discount your online friends. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that those who use Facebook also live longer, but only when online interactions don’t completely supplant face-to-face social interaction.
33. Watch your grandkids
While babysitting every day is stressful, regularly watching the grands can lower your risk of dying by a third, according to a 2016 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior. That adds up to an extra five years of life, researchers say. They speculate that caregiving gives grandparents a sense of purpose, and keeps them mentally and physically active.
34. Try to stay out of the hospital
A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study found that some 250,000 patients die each year in hospitals from medical mistakes, such as misdiagnoses, poor practices and conditions, and drug errors. Sometimes the best way to avoid a grave condition is not to enter the system at all.
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35. Read more
Sounds like we made it up, but scientific research supports the longevity benefits of reading — newspapers and magazines will do, but books are the best. “As little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” said the study’s senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale.
36. Read the ‘AARP Bulletin’
Really. This and other smart publications can keep you up to date on health info. Studies have shown that when people are empowered with information to make important medical decisions, it not only enhances their well-being but also improves a treatment’s effectiveness. So keep reading aarp.org/bulletin and aarp.org/health.
37. Monitor yourself
Don’t wait for annual checkups to consider your health. By then, a small problem could have morphed into a life-threatening illness. In one English study, researchers found that less than 60 percent of people who developed unusual symptoms in the previous three months had seen a doctor. Symptoms that might point to cancer include: unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more (this can be an indication of cancers of the esophagus, stomach or lungs); fever; extreme fatigue; changes in bowel or bladder habits; or unusual bleeding. Other unusual symptoms that could signal disease? A patch of rough, dark skin could indicate diabetes, and a strange color on your tongue could signal serious acid-reflux issues.
38. Visit the hardware store
Among the most common causes of “unintentional deaths” are carbon monoxide, radon and lead poisoning, the CDC reports. Make sure there’s a carbon monoxide detector near every bedroom, and be sure to test and replace the batteries every two years. Was your home built before 1978, when lead paint was outlawed? One trip to the store can get you all you need to test for these toxic substances.
39. Practice home fire drills
Just 1 in 3 families have a fire-safety plan, says Robert Cole, president of Community Health Strategies, an injury-prevention education organization based in Pittsford, N.Y. “People underestimate the speed of a fire. Many waste time figuring out what to do, or trying to take belongings with them. Everyone should know what to do and how to get out safely.”
40. Find a woman doctor
When Harvard researchers in 2016 analyzed Medicare records documenting more than 1.5 million hospitalizations over four years, they found that patients who received care from a female physician were more likely to survive and less likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge. In fact, about 32,000 fewer people would die each year “if male physicians achieved the same outcomes as female physicians,” the researchers said. Previous studies have suggested that female doctors are more likely to follow clinical guidelines and are more effective communicators.
41. Make peace with family
While we often stress about small stuff — the guests are here, and we’re not ready! — it’s the nagging, long-running forms of stress, such as a family dispute, that put your longevity at risk. Chronic stress hastens the cellular deterioration that leads to premature aging and a vast array of serious diseases, according to long-running research from the University of California, San Francisco. This sort of cell death “turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of early diseases of aging and in many studies of early mortality,” says lead researcher Elissa Epel. The remedy: Come to peace with the people in your life. Forgive your family, forgive yourself, put the past behind you — so you can have more life in front of you.
42. Take the stairs — every day
A study by University of Geneva researchers found that taking the stairs instead of the elevators reduced the risk of dying prematurely by 15 percent. What’s more, a daily stair climb shaves six months off your “brain age,” according to researchers at Concordia University who performed MRI scans on 331 people ages 19 to 79. Gray matter shrinks naturally with age, but less so when people stay active.
43. Toss that rug
One of the top risks for falls at home is throw rugs. Those slip-slidey accoutrements send 38,000 older adults to the emergency room each year, according to a 2013 study by the CDC. Banish these rugs from your home, and make sure bath mats have a nonslip bottom.
44. Beware the high-tech dash
Nearly one in five traffic accidents and more than 400,000 crash-related injuries involve a distracted driver, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports. Top distractions, according to a recent Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study, are cellphones. But a less-obvious risk is using the touch screen on your car’s dashboard.
45. And drive less
In 2014, more than 5,700 older adults were killed and more than 236,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Per mile traveled, fatal crashes increase noticeably starting at age 70 and are highest among drivers age 85 and older, a highway safety organization says. If you’re feeling unsafe behind the wheel, it might be time to look for alternative transportation.
46. Better yet, walk
What’s the best prescription for a longer life? Exercise. And doctors are literally prescribing it instead of medication. “There is no pill that comes close to what exercise can do,” says Claude Bouchard, director of the human genomics laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. It benefits your brain, heart, skin, mood and metabolism. Even as little as 10 minutes of brisk walking can help (that’s all it takes to burn off the calories of one chocolate chip cookie). Once you can do 10 minutes, push it to 15. Then 20. Start slow, but just start.
47. Just not in the street
Nearly 5,000 pedestrians are killed annually in the U.S., according to the latest federal figures, and nearly 20 percent of those deaths were among adults age 65 and older. If you walk for your health — and we hope you do — stay safe and consider doing so at the mall, a community health center or a park.
48. And go a little faster
The benefits of a brisk walk are real: A University of Pittsburgh study of adults 65 and older found that those whose usual walking pace exceeded one meter per second lived longer. While researchers say they can’t recommend brisk walking as a panacea for living longer, they did see increased survival in those who picked up the pace over the course of a year.
49. Get fidgety
Never mind what your grade school teachers said; fidgeting is good. A 2016 British study finds that sitting for seven or more hours a day increases your risk of dying by 30 percent — except among active fidgeters, who see no increased risk.
50. Trade in Ol’ Bessie
High-tech safety features have now become standard in new cars. The government mandates that all have airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control — “up there with seat belts and airbags in its life- aving benefits,” says one industry leader — and tire pressure-monitoring systems. Carmakers also offer back-up cameras, self-parking features, blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, and forward-collision warning with auto-braking.