Updated on 1/17/12: This story was originally published on February 20, 2009. It has been updated with additional reporting by Angela Haupt.
The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.
One of the biggest factors that determines how well you age is not your genes but how well you live. Not convinced? A study published in 2009 in the British Medical Journal of 20,000 British folks shows that you can cut your risk of having a stroke in half by doing the following four things: being active for 30 minutes a day, eating five daily servings of fruit and vegetables, and avoiding cigarettes and excess alcohol.
While those are some of the obvious steps you can take to age well, researchers have discovered that centenarians tend to share certain traits in how they eat, move about, and deal with stress—the sorts of things we can emulate to improve our own aging process. Of course, getting to age 100 is enormously more likely if your parents did. (Recent research suggests that centenarians are 20 times as likely as the average person to have at least one long-lived relative.) Still, Thomas Perls, who studies the century-plus set at Boston University School of Medicine, believes that assuming you've sidestepped genes for truly fatal diseases like Huntington's, "there's nothing stopping you from living independently well into your 90s." Heck, if your parents and grandparents were heavy smokers, they might have died prematurely without ever reaching their true potential lifespan, so go ahead and shoot for those triple digits. Follow these 11 habits and check out Perls' lifetime risk calculator to see how long you can expect to live.
1. Don't retire. "Evidence shows that in societies where people stop working abruptly, the incidence of obesity and chronic disease skyrockets after retirement," says Luigi Ferrucci, director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The Chianti region of Italy, which has a high percentage of centenarians, has a different take on leisure time. "After people retire from their jobs, they spend most of the day working on their little farm, cultivating grapes or vegetables," he says. "They're never really inactive." Farming isn't for you? Volunteer as a docent at your local art museum or join the Experience Corps, a program offered in 19 cities that places senior volunteers in urban public elementary schools for about 15 hours a week.
2. Floss every day. That may help keep your arteries healthy. A 2008 New York University study showed that daily flossing reduced the amount of gum-disease-causing bacteria in the mouth. This bacteria is thought to enter the bloodstream and trigger inflammation in the arteries, a major risk factor for heart disease. Other research has shown that those who have high amounts of bacteria in their mouth are more likely to have thickening in their arteries, another sign of heart disease. "I really do think people should floss twice a day to get the biggest life expectancy benefits," says Perls.
3. Move around. "Exercise is the only real fountain of youth that exists," says Jay Olshansky, a professor of medicine and aging researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's like the oil and lube job for your car. You don't have to do it, but your car will definitely run better." Study after study has documented the benefits of exercise to improve your mood, mental acuity, balance, muscle mass, and bones. "And the benefits kick in immediately after your first workout," Olshansky adds. Don't worry if you're not a gym rat. Those who see the biggest payoffs are the ones who go from doing nothing to simply walking around the neighborhood or local mall for about 30 minutes a day. Building muscle with resistance training is also ideal, but yoga classes can give you similar strength-training effects if you're not into weight lifting.
4. Eat a fiber-rich cereal for breakfast. Getting a serving of whole-grains, especially in the morning, appears to help older folks maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the day, according to a recent study conducted by Ferrucci and his colleagues. "Those who do this have a lower incidence of diabetes, a known accelerator of aging," he says.