Nothing has vexed humanity quite like the inevitable pull of aging. A bizarre enigma grips us: As we grow wiser with years of experience, our bodies begin to weaken and stiffen. “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen,” writer Mark Twain once joked.

The search for a Fountain of Youth has intrigued Americans ever since Ponce De Leon searched for it in Florida in the sixteenth century. No magical waters flowing with the power to restore youth have ever been found on Earth.

 The Fountain of Youth might be a fable that has lured explorers for centuries, but the keys to longevity might have already been discovered. Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data from more than 700,000 U.S. veterans ages 40 to 90 to compare their lifestyle habits with health outcomes over time.

 They identified eight significant factors linked to longer, healthier lives among participants: getting enough exercise, following a nutritious diet, managing stress, having strong social ties, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking, binge drinking, and opioid addiction.

 The study estimated that men who began following these eight habits by age 40 could live an average of 24 years longer than men who didn’t follow any of the habits. For women, the habits were linked to an average life span increase of 21 years. The earlier, the better, but even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it still is beneficial.

Exercise is a significant factor in living a long, healthy life.

 A wealth of evidence links regular exercise to better health outcomes, including lower risk of major illnesses like heart disease and cancer and a better mood. Research suggests that cardio exercise, resistance training, and lifting weights are beneficial. Combining cardio exercise with weight training is the best for overall health, according to some studies.

Strength training helps combat age-related muscle loss and can lead to a longer life span. Additionally, balance exercises can help prevent slips and falls, the leading cause of injuries in adults ages 65 and older.

Wellness habits underscore that one key to a longer life is a fitness regimen that incorporates mental and emotional fitness. Recommendations include doing activities that keep the brain in shape. One study showed that reading articles and searching topics online offers valuable mental stimulation. Doing crossword puzzles, reading books, playing games, practicing hobbies, and daydreaming all contribute to mental sharpness.

Stress can be another source of health problems, and while it is difficult to avoid it entirely, there are ways to reduce the amount in your life. Lifestyle habits such as meditation, journaling, breathwork, exercise, and positive social experiences can help reduce stress. Just 10 minutes of meditation a day can improve mood and cognitive agility, rewiring the brain and strengthening neural circuits.

A healthy diet helps to stave off disease over time.

Research consistently shows that the best health outcomes are linked to eating patterns like the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in nutrient-dense plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Plant foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, a carbohydrate crucial for healthy digestion.

Evidence also suggests that diets include healthy fats like olive oil and fatty fish. Protein is a crucial nutrient for maintaining muscle mass and metabolic health. Good protein sources include lean meats, seafood, dairy, and legumes. Eating plenty of plant-based protein and fiber sources like beans has been linked to a longer, healthier life.

Evidence suggests that consuming too much processed food high in added sugar, fat, and salt can harm your health.

Cultivate social relationships to boost your life span.

A growing body of evidence suggests that loneliness can be a significant risk factor for chronic disease. Social connections can also positively affect other lifestyle factors, such as helping you maintain a healthier diet. Maximize the time you spend with people you enjoy being around. Connecting with others who radiate positivity and have similar interests will excite and energize you. Volunteering can also add purpose and connection to your life.

Get enough sleep to support healthy aging.

There is strong evidence that getting enough sleep is crucial for optimal health. Sleep deprivation can perpetuate serious health conditions and negatively affect your mood and energy levels. Seven to nine hours of sleep helps support your immune system, repair daily damage to cells and muscle tissues, and boosts your mood. Prioritizing sleep is one of the best things you can do to set yourself up for a successful, energized day. Utilizing the same sleep routine and strategies will help develop your body’s internal alarm clock and improve sleep quality. With improved sleep quality, people experience better health and enhanced emotional well-being, lower risk of diseases, and are more productive.

Avoid risky behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking or opioid addiction.

These three behaviors increase your risk of developing serious health illnesses.

There is no magical Fountain of Youth. What truly lengthens your life and keeps your later years healthy are the basics we have known about for ages: Eat a healthy diet filled with vegetables and fruits, exercise regularly, invest in healthy relationships, reduce stress, get enough sleep, and avoid dangerous behaviors.

Nancy J. Schaaf is a retired English/literature educator and also a retired nurse.

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