The (obvious) 6 questions for a longer life

Being obvious and impactful, it is important to not get these wrong in your life. Ask yourself these six questions.

  1. Do you have a stressful work environment or stressful personal relationships?
  2. Do you smoke?
  3. Do you wear a seatbelt when in the car?
  4. Do you have a socially integrated life with emotional support?
  5. Are you at least a bit physically active?
  6. How healthy do you think you actually are?

If you are scoring in the ‘good’ direction to the questions above, you will probably live a longer than average lifespan. If you aren’t, try to integrate changes in your life to accommodate these questions. While they may seem too obvious, they are real. The interesting part is what studies are behind them.

Why are these important?

Stress – It seems common knowledge that chronic stress in your life can make you age faster, and that’s what the survey questions try to capture in various ways. Looking at scientific studies, we know that higher levels of psychological stress can be associated to greater risks of mild cognitive impairment with age1. Work related stress shortens the lengths of telomeres, and telomere shortening also occurs with age2 (though might not necessarily cause aging). For health in general, psychological stress increases the susceptibility to having colds3, and it has been reported that job stress is related to coronary heart disease4, and to it’s reoccurrence5, a phenomenon which also occurs when having negative close relationships6.

So stress is bad. While it might be hard to precisely say how much stress will shorten your life by a strong degree of accuracy (as the question-to-lifespan predictors try to do), it is certainly good advice to promote a lifestyle that has lower amounts of stress. Your work and close relationships are the first place to look.

Smoking – The CDC fact sheet on smoking sums it up best, about half a million people in the US die to smoking related causes every year, and these include deaths from secondhand smoke too. Smoking causes cancer, greatly increases your risks of other diseases (like heart disease), and the life expectancy of smokers is thought to be at least 10 years less than non smokers7. If you smoke, stop. Stopping before the age of 40 could reduce your risks of smoking related death up to 90%8.

Seat belts – Seems simple enough, and we can again go to a CDC fact sheet. Auto accidents are a leading cause of death in the US for those aged 1- 54, and more than half of those aged 13-44 die in those accidents not wearing seat belts (see report here). Lifespan predictors are going to give you a lower than average lifespan if you aren’t wearing your seatbelt. The advice is simple; if you want to live at least a normal to long life, wear your seatbelt.

Social support – Various parts of the question-to-lifespan predictors  were driving at the same thing: do you have a close-knit social support group? Why is that important? Decades worth of studies have been showing that having emotional and social support can protect your health9, and can predict mortality10. That is big. How ‘Support’ is defined depends on the study, but essentially it tries to quantitatively and qualitatively assess the friends, family and community involvement you have.

Having this kind of support is shown to be strongly related to self-reported disease in the elderly11, where those with more support had less disease. In general, not having such support has been related to death from diabetes12, to the first-time occurrences of myocardial infarctions (MI)13, to death from MIs14, and more9. A meta-analysis study looking through loads of published papers linking social support networks to health found that not having these support networks was bad for you to a similar degree as was smoking15.

Social support networks can be roughly assessed with questionnaires and have quite a powerful protective effect on our health, which is why the question-to-lifespan predictors tried to capture this in some way. Get active in the community you are in and take time for family and friendships, it will reward you even beyond just your health and lifespan.

Some movement – It’s well accepted that exercise is beneficial for your health and protects from many diseases16. What isn’t completely clear is exactly how much you need beyond just a little activity, or what benefits each added amount of exercise you do per week will help. What’s drop dead clear though is that being completely sedentary is terrible for you. Even just a bit of exercise, still under a recommended 150 hours moderate exercise per week, was shown to decrease chances of death by 20% compared to completely sedentary individuals17. Since physical activity seems to decrease with aging18, it’s extra important to include movement in your life. Use it or lose it.

Self reported health – This is a pretty easy question to include and strait to the point. How people feel about their own health is strongly related to how healthy they actually are, which will all say something about how long they’ll live19. This is in fact similar to the ‘age you feel’ question. It is a pretty subjective measure though so seems a bit tricky to integrate into a lifespan predictor, but it is always good to give yourself mental checks for how you are doing.

So, how are you?

If you need more questions to find out, try these question-to-lifespan predictors.

Going deeper…

Wilson RS, Schneider JA, Boyle PA, Arnold SE, Tang Y, Bennett DA. Chronic distress and incidence of mild cognitive impairment. Neurology. 2007;68(24):2085-2092. doi: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000264930.97061.82
Ahola K, Sirén I, Kivimäki M, et al. Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study. Kiechl S, ed. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(7):e40186. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040186
Cohen S, Tyrrell DAJ, Smith AP. Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. New England Journal of Medicine. 1991;325(9):606-612. doi: 10.1056/nejm199108293250903
Kornitzer M, deSmet P, Sans S, et al. Job stress and major coronary events: results from the Job Stress, Absenteeism and Coronary Heart Disease in Europe study. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation. 2006;13(5):695-704. doi: 10.1097/01.hjr.0000221865.19415.e9
Aboa-Éboulé C, Brisson C, Maunsell E, et al. Job Strain and Risk of Acute Recurrent Coronary Heart Disease Events. JAMA. 2007;298(14):1652. doi: 10.1001/jama.298.14.1652
De Vogli R, Chandola T, Marmot MG. Negative Aspects of Close Relationships and Heart Disease. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2007;167(18):1951. doi: 10.1001/archinte.167.18.1951
National C. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. January 2014. [PubMed]
Jha P, Ramasundarahettige C, Landsman V, et al. 21st-Century Hazards of Smoking and Benefits of Cessation in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013;368(4):341-350. doi: 10.1056/nejmsa1211128
Reblin M, Uchino BN. Social and emotional support and its implication for health. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2008;21(2):201-205. doi: 10.1097/yco.0b013e3282f3ad89
House J, Landis K, Umberson D. Social relationships and health. Science. 1988;241(4865):540-545. [PubMed]
Tomaka J. The Relation of Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Social Support to Disease Outcomes Among the Elderly. Journal of Aging and Health. 2006;18(3):359-384. doi: 10.1177/0898264305280993
Zhang X, Norris SL, Gregg EW, Beckles G. Social Support and Mortality Among Older Persons With Diabetes. The Diabetes Educator. 2007;33(2):273-281. doi: 10.1177/0145721707299265
Ali SM, Merlo J, Rosvall M, Lithman T, Lindström M. Social capital, the miniaturisation of community, traditionalism and first time acute myocardial infarction: A prospective cohort study in southern Sweden. Social Science & Medicine. 2006;63(8):2204-2217. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.04.007
Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Guallar-Castillón P, Herrera MC, et al. Social Network as a Predictor of Hospital Readmission and Mortality Among Older Patients With Heart Failure. Journal of Cardiac Failure. 2006;12(8):621-627. doi: 10.1016/j.cardfail.2006.06.471
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. Brayne C, ed. PLoS Medicine. 2010;7(7):e1000316. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of Exercise Is a Major Cause of Chronic Diseases. Comprehensive Physiology. April 2012. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110025
Arem H, Moore SC, Patel A, et al. Leisure Time Physical Activity and Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015;175(6):959. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0533
Hallal PC, Andersen LB, Bull FC, Guthold R, Haskell W, Ekelund U. Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects. The Lancet. 2012;380(9838):247-257. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(12)60646-1 [Source]
Idler E, Benyamini Y. Self-rated health and mortality: a review of twenty-seven community studies. J Health Soc Behav. 1997;38(1):21-37. [PubMed]
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