Will You Live Longer?

Tips on what to do, how to do it and what not to do in order to live healthier and longer Al Klein

I am going to start by answering the question: Will you live longer? My answer is: Yes, you may live longer than you might otherwise, given your individual situation, but only if you:

  • Know how to do so.
  • Do it to the best of your abilities.
  • Don’t have an unfortunate accident.

In this article, I hope to explain what to do, how to do it and what not to do in order to live both healthier and longer. You do not need to be perfect, but try to follow the advice to the best of your ability. This information is based on my review of scientific studies over the last 20-plus years. These are my opinions based on this research and not necessarily those of my employer or the Society of Actuaries (SOA). I cannot cover everything you need to know in this article, but I provided references and suggest you do your own research and decide what the right path is for you.

A couple of caveats: If you are allergic to something I say is good for you, certainly do not follow my advice. If you have religious or other beliefs that contradict what I say, again, do not follow my advice.

Mortality Trends

“Will you live longer?” is an interesting question. U.S. population mortality began to increase and life expectancy decreased in 2015,1 for the first time in decades. This was driven by increases in almost all causes of death besides cancer. The deterioration in mortality continued in 2016 and 2017, while preliminary results for 2018 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention …

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Most people believe they know how to live healthier and longer from news and advice from other people. However, the advice is often misleading or wrong. I made many mistakes doing what I believed to be true before beginning my own research. I study information on healthier living on a regular, almost daily basis, and I am still learning.

I will focus on items you may not be aware of, but that you have control over. Why should you want to live healthier and longer? Because you will enjoy life more and be able to do much more of what you want.

Please note there is no one pill to make you live longer. While studies on Metformin,1 for example, are underway, I don’t believe there will ever be a single step or process that by itself will extend healthy longevity. I believe a longer and healthier life is achievable through a series of behaviors and actions.

You probably can guess some of the topics I will be covering in this article, such as diet, exercise and smoking, but I hope to explore them in unexpected ways. I will also cover the topics of inflammation, attitude and mental health, vitamin D, pollution and health care.

Diet

It is common knowledge that fruits and vegetables are good for you. However, did you know, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2019 “Dirty Dozen,”2 strawberries are the most contaminated with pesticides of all fruits and vegetables? Spinach and kale come in second and third, respectively. Knowing this, you can purchase an alternative version of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Did you know, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2019 “Dirty Dozen,” strawberries are the most contaminated with pesticides of all fruits and vegetables?

While crop yields have increased, the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables has declined over the last 50 years.3 Protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C were specifically mentioned in research. Fertilizer and irrigation have led to higher crop yields but have also lowered nutrient value. This means that in order to get enough nutrients, you may need to eat more fruits and vegetables than in the past.

Another reason for the increase in crop yield is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have been engineered in a way that make them tolerant to large applications of pesticides and herbicides.4 Many of these pesticides contain glyphosate, which was found by the World Health Organization in May 2015 to be a “probable human carcinogen.” Also, according to this same research, GMOs have caused the use of herbicides and pesticides to increase significantly, leaving more chemical residue on crops for consumers to ingest. Autism, gluten intolerance, birth defects and many more health issues are all linked back to glyphosate. Most corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and processed foods contain GMOs.

While others, including the manufacturers, may disagree, I suggest avoiding crops and products that contain GMOs. Unfortunately, glyphosate recently has been found in common beers and wines.5 Most studies indicate moderate drinking is beneficial for your health and longevity, so rather than eliminate drinking altogether, try to understand what you eat and drink. Kimberton Whole Foods has put together a list of GMO foods6 to which you can refer. I also recommend carefully reading labels of any processed foods you purchase, because most contain GMOs. Finally, a list of GMO foods by Organic Hawaii has some items that may surprise you, such as flax, salmon, bananas and pineapples.7 Again, I am not suggesting you not eat these otherwise healthy foods, but rather to look for non-GMO alternatives.

My next topic is red meat. Is it good or bad for you? You probably have heard different opinions, largely because all meats are grouped together. I will explain it simply (and I believe accurately). If the meat comes from a grass-fed animal that has not been given hormones or antibiotics, it is healthy; maybe even healthier than fish. It contains less total fat; more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids; more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks; and more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E.8 If the meat is processed or does not come from a grass-fed animal, was given hormones or antibiotics (to either keep it healthy or to make it grow faster and get to market quicker), it is not good for you and should be avoided.

I would like to discuss several other food items: fat, sugar, salt and eggs. A recent review of 72 studies found that saturated fats are not harmful and do not cause heart disease.9 In fact, butter, for example, has many benefits, including anticancer properties, improved cardiovascular health, better thyroid health, eye care, powerful antioxidant properties, improved bone health, improved nutritional absorption and healthy sexual performance. (I hope I didn’t just start a run on butter!) Besides butter, good fats include those found in avocados, cheese, coconuts, dark chocolate, whole eggs, fatty fish, nuts, chia seeds, extra-virgin olive oil and full-fat yogurt. Avoid trans fats, such as margarine, as they raise your risk for developing many chronic diseases.10

Sugar is bad for you, particularly high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS consumption can lead to diabetes, metabolic syndrome and damage to the immune system. It also speeds up the aging process.11 Additionally, sugar can lead to cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Foods that contain carbohydrates and are converted into sugar during the digestion process include grains like baked goods, bread, crackers, pasta, rice and starchy vegetables.

Certain forms of salt contain trace minerals essential for your body. The benefits of salt include strengthening your immune system and helping with skin conditions, asthma, muscle spasms, heart health, diabetes, depression and osteoporosis.12 Sea salt and Himalayan pink salt are good for you. Table salt is missing the healthy natural minerals.

Views on whether eggs are good for you or bad for you seem to fluctuate every couple of years. The answer is eggs are good for you. They contain protein, amino acids in the right proportion for your body to use, omega-3 fatty acids, lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health, many important vitamins and minerals, and they reduce the risk of heart disease.13

Icon 1People who work out too hard for too long may be less healthy than sedentary people, and they are more likely to die earlier than moderate exercisers.

Exercise

Several of the best exercises you can do are swimming, strength training, tai chi and walking. Possibly the best exercise for you is interval training, but also think of natural motions, such as lunges, squats and crunches.14 It might surprise you that people who work out too hard for too long may be less healthy than sedentary people, and they are more likely to die earlier than moderate exercisers.15 Based on this, it is not surprising that running a marathon increases cardiac strain.16

As with food, think about doing what comes naturally when deciding on an exercise.

Icon 1The United Kingdom is encouraging cigarette smokers to move to e-cigarettes, and the United States is trying to discourage e-cigarette usage.

Smoking

E-cigarettes, in their various forms, have become more popular in recent years. The question is whether e-cigarettes are healthier than combustible cigarettes. The United Kingdom is encouraging cigarette smokers to move to e-cigarettes, and the United States is trying to discourage e-cigarette usage. There is not enough data to answer this question, partly because e-cigarettes continue to change form. However, here are some considerations:

  • Combustible cigarettes create more than 7,000 chemicals, at least 69 of which are known to cause cancer, and many of which are toxic.17
  • E-cigarettes do not contain many of these, but they contain microbial toxins, which can lead to respiratory disease.18

My recommendation is to stop or limit smoking of either kind. Mortality studies of combustible cigarettes show smokers have about double the mortality of nonsmokers.

Inflammation

The causes of chronic inflammation include mental and physical stress and toxins from the environment. Stress, toxins and injuries all lead to inflammation. If this happens occasionally, your body can generally heal itself. However, if the stress is continuous, you can develop chronic inflammation, which can lead to many of the common chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease19 I believe chronic inflammation is one of the primary causes of heart disease.

While you cannot eliminate stress, you can control its impact by recognition and acceptance of issues beyond your control. Other ways to reduce stress include deep breathing, meditation, exercise and talking to someone.

Ways to reduce stress include deep breathing, meditation, exercise and talking to someone.

Attitude and Mental Health

A positive attitude,20,21 laughing and enjoying life all help you live longer. Loneliness22 and depression23 shorten life. One beneficial activity for some forms of depression is to go outside in the sunlight.24

Vitamin D

Lack of sunshine (really the lack of vitamin D from the sun) can lead to depression and premature death. Low levels of vitamin D also lead to an increase in cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Lack of sunshine can lead to depression and premature death.

The best source of vitamin D is the sun, but there are two problems I see happening today. One is the extensive use of sunscreen, which blocks the ultraviolet UVB rays of the sun.25 These are the rays your body needs to generate vitamin D. Therefore, my recommendation is that you should go out in the sun for a short period of time without sunscreen to absorb the vitamin D you need, and then get out of the sun before getting burned. The amount of time you can spend in the sun will vary from person to person, based on your complexion (darker skin can stay in the sun longer), the time of year, time of day and your latitude (the sun is more intense closer to the equator).

The second issue is that your body needs cholesterol for the process to convert the rays from the sun into vitamin D (actually vitamin D3).26 The problem here is many people are on statins, which lower cholesterol, leading to less conversion of vitamin D. I am not suggesting you stop taking statins—that is between you and your doctor—but I wanted to make you aware of this fact.

Figure 1 is reprinted with the permission of On the Risk, Journal of the Academy of Life Underwriting27 The data comes from the Framingham study.28 The “N” column shows the number of lives, and “exp_yrs” represents the number of exposure years for each cholesterol level. My focus in Figure 1 is on the last two columns, which show that total cholesterol levels up to 325 have lower levels of all-cause mortality than cholesterol levels of 161 to 180. This indicates cholesterol levels may not need to be reduced by as much as is commonly thought. If you continue on statins, use vitamin D and CoQ10 supplements for better health and longevity.

Figure 1: Total Cholesterol and Relative Mortality Levels

fig 1

Source: Reprinted with the permission of On the Risk, Journal of the Academy of Life Underwriting

Pollution

Environmental toxins are often cancer-causing chemicals and endocrine disruptors—both human-made and naturally occurring—that can harm your health by disrupting sensitive biological systems 29 Environmental toxins include lead, mercury, radon, formaldehyde and cadmium. Endocrine disrupters include man-made BPA, phthalates and pesticides. They can be found in the environment and home, including in paint cans, lead pipes, plastic bottles, food can liners, detergents, flame retardants (e.g., on furniture and carpet), toys, cosmetics and pesticides. They can cause cancer and organ failure, and can lead to obesity, infertility and early puberty, among other serious problems. Based on one study, 93 percent of children six years of age and older have detectable levels of BPA in their urine.30

Being aware of this allows you to potentially make different purchases and/or improve the ventilation in your home.

IconBPA can be found in the environment and home, including in plastic bottles. It can cause cancer and organ failure, and can lead to obesity, infertility and early puberty, among other serious problems. Based on one study, 93 percent of children six years of age and older have detectable levels of BPA in their urine.

Health Care

Have regular checkups to make sure all is OK. You know your body better than anyone else. If something doesn’t seem right, have it checked out. Don’t wait.

Try to avoid hospitals, but if you need to be admitted, make sure you have an advocate who can watch out for you. Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.31 Medical errors resulting in death are a leading cause of death in other countries32 as well.

While you cannot control your genetics, understanding them is beneficial. The use of genetics in the treatment of individuals (precision medicine33) will increase in the future. One reason for this is that genetics provide information on which drugs work for you, that is, which ones you can metabolize more quickly.34 This is important because, if you metabolize a drug quickly, you may be able to get by with smaller dosages. On the other hand, if you do not metabolize a drug for a particular condition, then treatment should begin with another drug.

Concluding Comments

I have covered a lot of information in this article, but only scratched the surface on the items to help you live longer. Again, I encourage you to do your own research and look into the following additional vitamins and supplements to help you lead a healthier and longer life: astaxanthin, curcumin, glutathione, resveratrol, quercetin, and vitamins B and C.

In the future, I believe you will hear about one or more of the following as breakthroughs: slowing the aging process; gut microbiome, which affects your brain, immune system and much more; cleaning out senescent cells; stem cell technology; and genetic editing (e.g., CRISPR).

I often get asked if I follow my own advice. My answer is: I try, but I am not perfect. My hope is that you will also try, and give yourself the opportunity to live a healthier and longer life.

Al Klein, FSA, MAAA, is a principal and consulting actuary.

References:

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Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.