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A Sense of Purpose = Longer Life

Having a high sense of purpose in life appears to lower your risk of death and cardiovascular disease. That conclusion comes from an analysis of 10 studies conducted in the U.S. and Japan involving data on 136,265 participants whose average age was 67. The men and women were followed for an average of 7 years during which more than 14,500 of them died and more than 4,000 suffered a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event. The researchers found after adjusting for other factors that the death rate was about 20 percent lower for the participants who reported a strong sense of purpose in life (this is called ikigai in Japanese, which translates to “a life worth living”.) The authors of the investigation, from Mt. Sinai-St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, noted a “well documented link” between “negative psychosocial risk factors” and heart attack, stroke and overall death and wrote that more recent evidence suggests that positive psychosocial factors can lead to better health and longer life. The study didn’t explain the mechanisms of how a purposeful life could promote health and deter disease, but the researchers suggested that a sense of purpose might help buffer physical responses to stress or perhaps, simply lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Cutting Calories To Lengthen Life

In animal studies, caloric restriction appears to increase longevity and slow the progression of age-related diseases but does it offer similar benefits in humans? An investigation sponsored by the National Institutes of Health set out to learn how trimming calories by 25 percent would affect human health. Researchers recruited 218 young and middle-aged healthy adults, some of normal weight, some moderately overweight. They randomized the participants into a group that would cut calories, and a control group that made no dietary changes. After two years, the investigators reported that the calorie-cutters didn’t succeed in reaching their goal of 25 percent reduced intake. The intervention did pare it by 12 percent, however, and participants in the group lost 10 percent of their weight in the first year, 5.5 pounds short of their 15.5 percent target. Even with this shortfall, compared to the control group, the calorie-cutters lowered their average blood pressure by 4 percent and total cholesterol by 6 percent, raised their HDL ("good") cholesterol and reduced their C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation linked to cardiovascular disease by 47 percent.  The researchers concluded that reducing calories by just 12 percent, and maintaining the lower intake, yielded a beneficial effect on health.

My take? Despite the well-publicized effects of caloric restriction in animals, I’ve questioned how many people would be willing to drastically cut calories long-term. This study shows that even a modest reduction in caloric intake can lead to significant health benefits. Even so, we still don’t know how effective long-term caloric restriction is at improving human health. We’ve got a lot more to learn on this subject. In the meantime, a prudent caloric intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and regular exercise is your best bet for maintaining your weight and enjoying optimum health. 

A Spicy Route to a Longer Life

The more spicy foods you eat, the longer you’re likely to live compared to folks whose diets lack fiery ingredients like chili peppers. A team of Harvard researchers looked into the question of whether or not spicy foods had any influence on the risk of death among some 199,000 men and 288,000 women ages 30 through 79 who lived in 10 regions of China. None had a history of cancer, heart disease or stroke when the study began. The team surveyed the participants’ diet and health histories between 2004 and 2008. After seven years of follow up, results indicated that regular consumption of spicy foods was linked to decreased chances of dying during the study. Eating spicy foods once or twice a week was associated with a 10 percent decline in the overall risk for death compared to consuming spicy foods less than once a week. Consuming spicy foods even more often - between three and seven days a week - was linked to a risk of death 14 percent lower than the others in the study. Fresh chili peppers in particular were associated with a lower incidence of dying from cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The researchers noted that while the study didn’t prove cause and effect, it did show an association between spicy foods and a lower risk of death.

My take: This is good news for those of us who enjoy spicy foods. Earlier studies have indicated that capsaicin, a compound in chili peppers that gives it its heat, is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent and may enhance the metabolism of fat. Red chili peppers also have been shown to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Most varieties are high in vitamin C, a potential cancer fighter. Here in the American Southwest, chili peppers and cayenne are staples. Many healthy traditional cuisines incorporate chili pepper into both savory and sweet dishes - and it's a delicious addition to hot chocolate. 

Having Baby “Late” in Life May Signal Longevity

Here’s some good news for women who have had babies after the age of 33: odds are they’ll live longer than women whose last child was born before they reached 30. The age at last childbirth can indicate the rate of biological aging, according to a study of families with members who lived exceptionally long lives. “The natural ability to have a child at an older age likely indicates that a woman’s reproductive system is aging slowly, and therefore so is the rest of her body,” researcher Thomas Perls, M.D., M.P.H. explained in a press release. The genetic variants that allow women to have babies naturally after age 33 might also be responsible for exceptionally long life spans, the study suggested. The findings came from an analysis of data from the Long Life Family Study (LLFS)—a biopsychosocial and genetic study of 551 families with multiple members who attained exceptionally old ages. The researchers determined the ages at which 462 women had their last child, and correlated that age with their longevity. They found that women who had their last child after the age of 33 years had twice the odds of living to 95 years or older compared with women who had their last child by age 29. Earlier data from this study showed that women who gave birth naturally after age 40 were four times more likely to live to 100 than women who had their last child earlier in life.

Thomas T. Perls et al, “Extended maternal age at birth of last child and women's longevity in the Long Life Family Study.” Menopause, The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, June 23, 2014