Healthy Longevity | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – HSPH News

Longevity is the achievement of a long life. We may hope for longevity so that we can experience many years of quality time with loved ones or have time to explore the world. But living to a ripe old age doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or happy longevity if it is burdened by disability or disease. The population of people over age 65 has grown more quickly than other age groups due to longer life spans and declining birth rates, and yet people are living more years in poor health. [1] Therefore, we will explore not just one’s lifespan but healthspan, which promotes more healthy years of life.
What you do today can transform your healthspan or how you age in the future. Although starting early is ideal, it’s never too late to reap benefits.
Researchers from Harvard University looked at factors that might increase the chances of a longer life. [2] Using data collected from men and women from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study who were followed for up to 34 years, researchers identified five low-risk lifestyle factors: healthy diet, regular exercise (at least 30 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous activity), healthy weight (as defined by a body mass index of 18.5-24.9), no smoking, and moderate alcohol intake (up to 1 drink daily for women, and up to 2 daily for men). Compared with those who did not incorporate any of these lifestyle factors, those with all five factors lived up to 14 years longer.
In a follow-up study, the researchers found that those factors might contribute to not just a longer but also a healthier life. [2] They saw that women at age 50 who practiced four or five of the healthy habits listed above lived about 34 more years free of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, compared with 24 more disease-free years in women who practiced none of these healthy habits. Men practicing four or five healthy habits at age 50 lived about 31 years free of chronic disease, compared with 24 years among men who practiced none. Men who were current heavy smokers, and men and women with obesity, had the lowest disease-free life expectancy.
Beyond the five core lifestyle habits mentioned above, a growing body of research is identifying additional factors that may be key to increasing our healthspans:
These senses can decline over time for various reasons: normal aging, which causes a gradual decrease in taste and smell; prescription drugs that reduce taste sensitivity and promote dry mouth or lack of saliva; deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc that reduce taste; and poor dentition with tooth loss or dentures leading to chewing problems. [19] Up to 60% of adults 70 years and older may lose their sense of taste. [20] With this loss may come heavier seasoning of food with sugar and salt. [21] They may prefer softer lower-fiber foods that don’t require much chewing. Poor taste and smell in the elderly is associated with lower dietary quality and poorer appetite. [22]
Food aromas are important as they trigger the release of saliva, stomach acid, and enzymes in preparation for digestion. [23] The scent of food can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin, causing a feeling of wellbeing to encourage eating. An impaired sense of smell in older adults is also associated with less variety in food choices and poorer nutrition, but can also lead to increased food intake and weight gain in some individuals. [23]
sautéing tomatoes in a pot next to simmering brothSeasoning food more liberally with sodium-free herbs, spices, and vinegars may help to compensate for sensory deficiencies. Using foods with a savory umami quality like mushrooms, tomatoes, some cheeses, and yeast can boost richness and flavor. Another sensory aspect of food called “kokumi” describes a full and rich mouthfeel—such as that experienced from a minestrone soup, an aged cheese, or a seafood stew simmering for many hours. If poor appetite from sensory loss is a problem, providing variety through different textures, smells, and colors in the meal may stimulate an increased desire to eat. [21]
Eating and food preparation are also important activities offering socialization and mental stimulation such as when learning new cooking skills. Preparing meals helps to reduce sedentariness as there are several action steps involved: selecting and purchasing, washing and chopping, and cooking the ingredients.
Identifying additional factors that improve and extend our healthspans is an active area of scientific inquiry. In the meantime, current research findings are encouraging, and underscore the importance of following healthy lifestyle habits throughout one’s life course. That said, sticking to these behaviors is easier said than done, and public policies must support and promote these habits by improving the food and physical environments that surround us.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.
Use healthy oils (like olive and canola oil) for cooking, on salad, and at the table. Limit butter. Avoid trans fat.
Drink water, tea, or coffee (with little or no sugar). Limit milk/dairy (1-2 servings/day) and juice (1 small glass/day). Avoid sugary drinks.
The more veggies — and the greater the variety — the better. Potatoes and French fries don’t count.
Eat plenty of fruits of all colors
Choose fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; limit red meat and cheese; avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats.
Eat a variety of whole grains (like whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice). Limit refined grains (like white rice and white bread).
Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine.
Create healthy, balanced meals using this visual guide as a blueprint.

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