Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying." Much to humanity's collective dismay, there is no way to defy death. But you can try.
Many people think they know what's good for them. Who wouldn't like to think that being rich, sleeping with supermodels and eating caviar every day would increase their longevity. After all, Hugh Hefner looks pretty good for a man of 78. But this is more wishful thinking than practical science.
If you really want to live longer, then you can start with your attitude. Your way of thinking can not only impact the quality of your life, but also how long you actually live. In 2002, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., found that optimistic people decreased their risk of early death by 50 percent compared with those who leaned more towards pessimism.
"The exact mechanism of how personality acts as a risk factor for early death or poorer health is unclear," says Dr. Toshihiko Maruta, the main investigator in the study. Most likely, it has to do with the fact that pessimists have an increased chance for future problems with their physical health, career achievements and emotional stress--particularly depression. "Yet another possibility could be more directly biological, like changes in the immune system," Maruta adds.
Besides optimism, are there other personality traits that can help us live longer, healthier lives? According to Dr. Howard Friedman, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, conscientiousness is related to mortality in a significant way. The Terman Life-Cycle Study, which ran from 1921 to 1991, examined an array of factors like personality, habits, social relations, education, physical activities and cause of death.
"Those low on adult conscientiousness died sooner," Friedman concluded. Conscientiousness does not mean looking both ways before crossing the street; it means looking both ways when the light turns green so you don't accidentally run down some slow-moving pedestrian. Beyond that, a conscientious person's long-living qualities probably have to do with the fact that they are predisposed to constructively reacting to emotional and social situations, and are more likely to create work and living environments that promote good health.
Besides looking at the world through rosier-colored glasses, there are also more traditional practices that the aspiring centenarian can take. People should stop smoking, eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. While these may sound "nannyish," they are factors that cannot be overlooked. This might not sound like much fun, but it's a lot more fun than dying.
Research shows that obesity, for example, contributes to a slew of medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and various cancers. So powerful are certain lifestyle choices that recommended diets along with maintenance of physical activity and appropriate body mass can, over time, reduce the incidence of cancer by 30 percent to 40 percent, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that having a pet can add years to your life, as well. One of the first studies in this arena, which appeared in "Public Health Reports" in 1980, showed that the survival rates of heart attack victims who had a pet were 28 percent higher than those of patients who didn't have an animal companion. "The health effects seem to be very real and by no means mystical," says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "Contact with companion animals triggers a relaxation response," he says.
Rebecca Johnson, a professor of gerontological nursing at the University of Missouri at Columbia, showed that interaction with pets does, in fact, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The ability of companion pets to reduce our overall stress level probably accounts for most of their life-extending qualities. "For many people, pets also provide a reason to get moving," adds Johnson. How many people, after all, would actually get any exercise if it weren't for their over-enthusiastic dog?
To many people, quality of life is equally as important as life span. It is a good thing, then, that many of the things that can improve your longevity can also improve your quality of life.