At the beginning of the 20th century, the average American could expect to live just 47.3 years. Since then, life expectancy climbed rapidly — reaching 70 years for the first time in 1961. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we reached 78.9 years in 2014, and it seemed most of us would be capable of living past our 79th birthday.
While this sounds promising, we shouldn’t just assume that longevity will continue to rise infinitely throughout the future. A great deal of how long we live depends on how we take care of ourselves.
1. Drink Less Milk But Eat More Cheese
We might have been raised to believe that milk does a body good, but studies show that excessive milk consumption may not be such a good thing. A collection of Swedish studies published in the British Medical Journal found that milk intake was correlated with higher rates of mortality and a greater likelihood of bone fractures. This may be due to the presence of a compound known as D-galactose in milk, something associated with natural aging in animals, with effects like shortened life spans, chronic inflammation, neurodegeneration, decreased immune response, and gene transcriptional changes.
However, the potential risk posed by milk isn’t true for all dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt. In fact, high intake of fermented milk products lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases. In order to meet your daily calcium requirements, you need only look to sources like green leafy vegetables.
2. Reduce Or Eliminate Meat Consumption
It’s certainly a difficult feat, especially when things like fried chicken exist in the world, but eating a vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian, diet does offer some protective health benefits. A vegetarian diet is associated with lower rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even certain cancers. If you must eat meat, try to avoid animals that are factory-farmed, as these products are more likely to contain E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, as well as additives like antibiotics and growth hormones.
3. Adopt A Pet
As Martin Mulcahey writes in The Atlantic, “People with pets enjoy superior self-esteem, while suffering less depression due to an optimistic mindset that companionship with animals engenders.” Improved mental health means improved physical health and longevity.
Owning a dog in particular can be advantageous to one’s health, as they require daily walks. Furthermore, says Mulcahey, “Dog owners worldwide enjoy longer life spans on average. Positive health attributes dogs afford remain a constant for young and elderly alike, including weight maintenance, reduced blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular fitness.”
4. Throw Away Your TV
I never believed my parents’ warnings that my brain would turn into mush from watching too many cartoons. However, new research suggests they may have been onto something. The Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle Study revealed some shocking data — even more jaw-dropping than the “Orange Is the New Black” finale. As Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times explains: “Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes.” Looking more broadly, an adult who spends an average of six hours a day watching TV throughout their lifetime can expect to live 4.8 years less than a person who does not watch TV. These results hold true, the authors point out, even for people who exercise regularly.
Perhaps at first glance, these tips sound like a recipe for a dull existence. However, the increased health and vitality that come with a vegetarian diet, the unconditionally loyal companionship of a pet, and the added hours for intellectual and spiritual pursuits that will result from turning off the TV, can all help you create not only a life with more years, but years with more life.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.