Live Longer, Live Better!

Most people want to live longer.  But we don't just want to live longer, we want to live better. With medical intervention, some are just dying longer.  We don't want to spend our later years in pain, on multiple medications, in the doctor's office—or worse, the hospital!  The good news is that science is showing us how to extend our lifespan and avoid the common diseases that plague so many Americans: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and Alzheimer's.  According to the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators study, dietary risks are the number one cause of death and disability!1 That's right, what we eat can influence how long and  how well we live.  Let's examine some of the science on longevity and then look at the people living in Blue Zones—regions of the world where lifespan is much longer than average-- to see what we can learn from their lifestyle.

Reduction of animal protein

A substance discovered in a bacteria on Easter Island called Rapamycin2inhibits an enzyme in our body called “Target of Rapamycin" (TOR), a master regulator of cellular growth and proliferation.  Turns out that TOR is our "engine of aging."  If we can slow down this normal enzyme in our body, we can delay aging. How do we do this? Unfortunately, the use of Rapamycin has numerous side effects, so we must take a different approach to reduce TOR activity: caloric restriction! This is not the fountain of youth pill you were probably hoping for, but the good news is that studies show by limiting our protein caloric intake we can slow down TOR activity.3  More specifically, studies show that by reducing the amino acid leucine, the activity of TOR is significantly reduced.4 Calorie for calorie, plant-based diets are naturally lower in leucine than animal foods. Accordingly, lower levels of leucine are best reached by restriction of animal foods. Thus, restrict (or eliminate) animal protein calories and slow down the engine of aging!  While this has not been replicated in humans thus far, this is just one potential mechanism behind the well-established fact that a plant-based diet increases lifespan.

Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet

A study by Dr. Dean Ornish showed that a whole-food plant-based diet high in fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, and legumes, along with walking 30 minutes per day, 6 days per week, resulted in a significant increase in an enzyme called telomerase.5 What is telomerase and why is it important?  Telomerase rebuilds our telomeres (strands of DNA at the tip of our chromosomes, much like the plastic tip of a shoelace), keeping them from unraveling and fraying. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides and when a telomere is gone, the cell stops dividing.  Studies show that people with longer telomeres live longer, healthier lives.  Slow down telomere shortening and our aging slows down.  Now you see why Dr Ornish's study showing an increase in an enzyme that lengthens our telomeres is so important! Stress, processed meat, lack of physical activity, obesity, and smoking are just a few of the factors that can speed the shortening of our telomeres and thus age us faster.6 A whole-food plant-based diet—along with exercise—can not only lengthen telomeres, it can lengthen our life!

Blue Zones

Blue zones are regions of the world where people commonly live active lives to 90 years and beyond!7 Note that they live active lives, not lives limited to frequent doctor’s visits and hospital beds. Their quality of life in the latter years is still high. Five regions have been identified: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.  A closer look at these populations shows that they have five common characteristics:

  1. Family is important and a priority
  2. They don’t smoke
  3. Constant, moderate activity
  4. Plant-based diet
  5. They eat a lot of beans!

For the Okinawans, having purpose in life and feeling needed is important.  The Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda make the weekly Sabbath a priority to rest from the rigors of daily life and focus on God, family, community, and nature. 

We have touched on just a small portion of the longevity research, but it seems clear that several factors are important:

  1. Diet, in particular a plant-based diet .
  2. Restrict or eliminate animal foods
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Keep moving with daily exercise and/or activity.
  5. Taking time to rest
  6. Focus on family

While this list is not all-inclusive, it gives the core of the recipe for a longer, healthier, and happier life!  Oh yes, and eat a lot of BEANS!

by Michael C. Hollie, MD

  1. US Burden of Diseases Collaborators.  The state of US health, 1990-2010: Burden of diseases, injuries and risk factors. JAMA 2013; 310(6):591-608
  2. C Vézina, A Kudelski, SN Sehgal. Rapamycin (AY-22,989), a new antifungal antibiotic. I. Taxonomy of the producing streptomycete and isolation of the active principle. J Antibiot (Tokyo). 1975 28(10):721 - 726.
  3. R Zoncu, AEfeyan, D M Sabatini. mTOR: from growth signal integration to cancer, diabetes and ageing. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2011 12(1):21 -35.
  4. R F Lamb. Amino acid sensing mechanisms: An Achilles heel in cancer? FEBS J. 2012 279(15):2624 – 2631
  5. D Ornish, J Lin, J Daubenmier, G Weidner, E Epel, C Kemp, M J M Magbanua, R Marlin, L Yglecias, P R Carroll, E H Blackburn. Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57.
  6. J.A. Nettleton, A. Diez-Roux, N.S. Jenny, A.L. Fitzpatrick, & D.R. Jacobs Jr. Dietary patterns, food groups, and telomere length in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Am J Clin Nutr, 88(5):1405-1412, 2008.
  7. Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners, 2017. Print