Animal studies have shown that certain types of dietary changes – such as an extremely low-calorie diet – can lead to a longer, healthier life. These studies provide clues to the biological processes that influence healthy aging. But to date, calorie-restricted diets and other dietary changes have had mixed results in extending people’s healthy lives.
“We have indirect evidence that nutritional adjustments can improve active longevity in people, but this is still an area of intense research,” Ferrucci says. “So far, we don’t really have solid evidence about calorie restriction and whether it can have a positive effect on human aging.” Researchers are now studying potential drugs or other methods that could mimic the benefits of calorie restriction.
Not smoking is another path to a longer, healthier life. “There is no doubt that smoking is a difficult habit to quit. But statistics show that the health benefits begin the moment you stop smoking. So it’s worth the effort,” says Bernard.
You might think you need good genes to live longer. But genes are only part of the equation for most of us, says Dr. Thomas Perls, an aging expert and director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine. “Research shows that genes account for less than one-third of your chances of surviving to age 85. The vast majority of variation in how old we live to be is due to our health behaviors,” Perls says. “Our genes could get most of us close to the remarkable age of 90 if we lead a healthy lifestyle.”
The influence of genes is stronger, though, for people who live to older ages, such as beyond 95. Perls has been studying people who live to age 100 and up (centenarians) and their families to learn more about the biological, psychological, and social factors that promote healthy aging.
“It seems there’s not a single gene that imparts a strong effect on the ability to get to these older ages,” Perls says. “Instead, it’s the combined effects of probably hundreds of genes, each with weak effects individually, but having the right combination can lead to a very strong effect, especially for living to the oldest ages we study.”
It’s a good idea to be skeptical of claims for a quick fix to aging-related problems. Perls cautions against marketed “anti-aging” measures such as “hormone replacement therapy,” which has little proven benefit for healthy aging and can have severe side effects. “People used to say, ‘The older you get the sicker you get.’ But with common sense, healthy habits such as regular exercise, a healthy weight, avoiding red meat, not smoking, and managing stress, it can be ‘the older you get, the healthier you’ve been,’” Perls says.