We’d all be a lot healthier if we just drank enough water, ate healthily, and got some exercise. But what fun is that?
Every few months it seems that headlines are screaming that one of our favorite vices might be the key to living our best (and longest) life. But deep down we know it’s too good to be true, even if we use it to justify our habits anyway. After all, you only live once!
Lately, news outlets seem keen on letting us believe things like coffee and alcohol will help us live longer, but as you might have guessed, there’s a lot more to the story.
First of all, research on alcohol consumption has been pretty contradictory over the last few years, so it looks like there are other contributing factors that determine its role in a healthy lifestyle. While one headline shouts that the key to living over 100 is a daily glass of bourbon, another says that any amount of alcohol hurts both you and those around you.
Writers back up these claims using data from long-term survey studies where people fill out questionnaires over many decades and then scientists crunch the numbers to see if they can find correlations between certain behaviors and longer lifespans or other things like reports of being more happy or healthy.
A lot of this is self-reported and any statistical analysis is only going to give you a general idea of trends – there’s no telling whether it’s applicable to you as an individual.
And you’ve probably heard the phrase “correlation is not causation.” Enough correlations can lead to strong evidence, but there’s no proof that anything causes an increased lifespan.
So let’s face it, your giant frappuccino and your rosé all day wine habit aren’t doing you any favors.
But there is some (potentially) good news.
The latest headlines are the results of details released from a large population study conducted at the University of California – Irvine called “The 90+ Study.” Again, they can only draw correlations, but some of them are interesting and the stronger the correlation and the more evidence we have of them, the more likely something is to be useful (if not necessarily true for everyone).
The project began in 2003 and over 1,600 people have enrolled. Their goal is to study the habits of the oldest people alive and get some clues into what behaviors they might have in common.
The best part about this study is that subjects are visited by researchers every six months and given cognitive and physical tests as well as interviewed about their diet and activities – so it’s much more rigorous than just having them send in a survey.
And the goal isn’t just to see what keeps people alive the longer – after all, quality of life is key. Instead, scientists hope to find out what kinds of lifestyle activities help people live into their 90s – and live well.
So what’s the deal with these wild and wonderful senior citizens? Some of the answers will surprise you!
First, they found that people who were overweight (but not obese) in their 70s had a longer average lifespan than those who were in the “normal” range or underweight.
While getting physical activity is key, once you hit a certain age, it appears you can stop stressing about your skinny jeans (as long as you’ve maintained a healthy weight throughout your life before that).
And they did in fact find that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or caffeine (tea or coffee, typically) lived longer than those who abstained.
BUT, this isn’t an invitation to margaritas and macchiatos – they’re talking about red wine and black coffee.
Furthermore, moderate drinking was key – and “moderate” is less than you might imagine.
The team found that those consuming about two glasses daily – typically of red wine – were 20% less likely to die prematurely.
But one of the researchers gave the South Florida Sun-Sentinel an important caveat:
“Keep in mind I began studying people when they’re 90. People who drank a lot of alcohol at younger ages may not even make it to their 90s.”
As far as caffeine was concerned, the goal is between 200-400 milligrams a day, or about two cups of coffee or tea. Without milk and sugar, of course.
If you’re pouring yourself a glass of Bordeaux while you read this, you should also keep in mind that the healthiest people studied also ate a lot of fruits (no, fermented grapes don’t count as a fruit) and vegetables.
While it’s a lot more fun to pick and choose the pieces of this longevity puzzle we like the best, it’s really the complete picture that’s key.
We can’t just take the booze without the rest, and that means exercise as well. But you already knew that – being sedentary can kill you.
The healthiest seniors engaged in up to 45 minutes of physical activity a day (but anything over 45 minutes did not have a demonstrable effect on older people).
To top it off, they were also mentally engaged – that is, they felt like they were part of something bigger and spent time engaging with friends or people in their community.
Older adults who felt like they had a sense of purpose were likely to live longer than those who felt lonely or did not interact with others regularly.
As you can see, it’s a more complex puzzle than the headlines would have you believe but in the end, it’s really common-sense advice – eat healthy food, get exercise, spend time with people you enjoy, and sprinkle in a morning coffee and an evening glass of your favorite wine if that’s what makes you happy.
Cheers to a long, happy life!
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