Stop Believing These Longevity Myths to Live a Longer, Healthier, and Happier Life

It’s never too late to give up bad habits—or defy your genetics. Here’s the truth about longevity.

senior couple enjoying ice cream and laughing
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The oldest living American is a Charlotte, NC woman named Hester Ford, who is either 115 or 116 years old (the record is fuzzy.)

Unfortunately, if she has the secret to a long and happy life on this earth (and how she managed not to be hospitalized until age 108!), she’s not talking. “I just live right, all I know,” Ford told her local CBS TV station in August.

But while Miss Ford may not know why she’s made it this far, we do know that there are some misconceptions about longevity that we need to clear up.

Myth: A sunny, optimistic disposition increases your life span.

An upbeat personality won’t help you in the long-life sweepstakes. A Longevity Project study that followed more than 1,500 people for 80 years found that the cheery, happy-go-lucky folks actually lived shorter lives. The ones who lived longest: persistent and prudent types. The lighthearted folks, based on an everything-will-turn-out-fine philosophy, tended to take more risks with their health (such as skipping recommended screenings) as they aged.

That’s not to say you need to be dour or worried to tack on more years of life. Laughter actually is good medicine—one study found that older adults who laughed every day had lower rates of heart disease and stroke. Just try to balance life enjoyment with a serious approach to maintaining your health.

Myth: Working too hard will put you in an early grave.

Hard workers actually have a 20% to 30% lower risk of early death, according to the Longevity Project study. If your workplace causes you take-home stress, that’s bad for your health. But for most, the social engagement and mental stimulation of working bring real benefits. One study found that healthy people who worked a year longer before retiring had an 11% lower risk of dying during the 18-year study period.

But it’s not being paid so much as having a sense of purpose that helps extend longevity, says research in Psychological Science. You can find purpose in just about any type of activity, from volunteering to helping care for a grandchild to taking up a social hobby. “It’s about the importance of community and being in service to others,” says Catherine Johnson, M.D., founder and medical director of Precision Medical Care in Clarendon Hills, IL.

Myth: If people in your family tend to die young, you will too.

Genetics account for only a small percentage of your longevity. Sure, your DNA matters some—if you have at least one parent who lives past the age of 70, your chances of living longer go up, research shows. But lifestyle habits and your environment, both of which impact how your DNA is expressed, play a much bigger role, says Dr. Johnson. When researchers studied more than 123,000 people, they found that five lifestyle habits in particular—maintaining a healthy weight, never smoking, exercising, following a healthy diet, and drinking only in moderation—greatly increased life expectancy at age 50. Quality health care and access to clean air and water play a role too, says David Fein, M.D., medical director of the Princeton Longevity Center.

Still, talk to your doc about your family history, which can indicate greater risk for genetically linked disease, so you can take advantage of health screenings and find ways to lower those risks, Dr. Fein says.

Myth: Aging is the worst!

No doubt some aspects of aging are suboptimal (ahem, that neck wattle!), but it’s far from all bad—and research found that people who embrace aging live 7.5 years longer on average than those who dread it. This may be in part because people who have a bleaker outlook on getting older are less proactive about seeking health care when issues pop up; they may simply ascribe them to aging and fail to address them, another study found. So even if you think every stiff joint or energy dip is because you’re not as young as you used to be, it’s worth talking things through with your doctor.

Just one example: It’s true that our immune response weakens over time, which can leave the body in a chronic state of inflammation, and that is linked to heart disease and some cancers. But by eating less sugar, exercising more, spending more time outside, managing your stress, and consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, you can dial inflammation way down, says Dr. Johnson. “I used to tell my patients, ‘Oh, that’s just what happens when you get older,’ but I’ve stopped saying that,” she says. “I believe we can manage how our bodies age.”

Myth: It’s too late to do any good by giving up bad habits like smoking and tanning.

It’s never too late to improve your health and even increase your life span. Take smoking: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who stopped smoking when they were between ages 45 and 54 gained about six years of life compared with others who kept puffing. The same goes for resigning from the couch potato club: A BMJ study found that physical activity helped people live longer, even if they hadn’t exercised before. And if you’ve been lax about slathering on sunscreen, researchers showed in a four-year study from the University of Queensland that daily sunscreen use slowed skin aging even in middle age. You might not be able to fully erase damage done by a history of unhealthy habits, but making a change is always worthwhile, Dr. Johnson says.

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Prevention.

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