senior woman smiling at her caregiver

A Generous Heart May Help You Live Longer

Usually, when it is said of someone that he or she has a good heart, it means that someone is generous, or caring. That they take time out to do unto others. However, in more literal terms, a good heart is associated with good cardiovascular health. Having a good heart means quite simply that your heart is in good condition. But, could they be one and the same? New studies show that volunteering, besides being mentally beneficial, can also have a positive impact on physical health. Need evidence? Here are what some experts are saying about how having a good heart can lead to having a good heart.

Mental and Physical Benefits
Anyone who has ever volunteered knows how mentally and emotionally rewarding it can be. Not only do volunteers feel as if they have made a positive change, studies show that donating time can lead to a feeling of greater social connectedness, and less depression and loneliness. However, new evidence reveals that people who volunteer may also be gifted with long lifespans and low blood pressure readings.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in this month’s edition of Psychology and Aging, shows that those who give time to others may have better health than those who do not. Findings revealed that adults over 40 who volunteered regularly were at a lower risk for high blood pressure than those who did not volunteer. High blood pressure is an accurate health indicator because it is linked to stroke, heart disease, and premature death.

Because it is possible that volunteers may also take part in other health conscious activities, such as exercise and healthy eating, it is not possible to prove that volunteering was the sole reason for the lower blood pressure readings, but the results do seem to point in that direction.

woman working at animal shelter

How It Works
If you are wondering how exactly volunteering contributes to better health and longer life, Rodlescia Sneed, lead author of the Carnegie Mellon study, may have some insight on the phenomena. One explanation may be the increased physical activity volunteering can provide for those who are not otherwise very active. Another may be stress reduction. According to Sneed, “Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked with health outcomes.”

If you are thinking of volunteering, and want to know how to get the maximum benefits from your do-gooding, Carnegie Mellon is on top of it. According to the study, it takes 200 hours of volunteering annually to reap the rewards of low blood pressure, although other studies have found as little as 100 hours will do the trick. As for types of volunteering, that remains unknown. However, Sneed speculates that it is the more mentally stimulating activities, like reading and tutoring, that lead to sharper thinking and memory skills, whereas “activities that promote physical activity would be helpful with respect to cardiovascular health, but no studies have really explored this.”

In conclusion, one thing does seem clear; the best results of volunteering come when it is done for the right reasons. A 2012 study published in the Health Psychology journal found that those who benefitted most from volunteer work were those whose intentions were altruistic. In other words, it has to come from the heart if the rewards are going to end up there.

Do you do volunteer work? How do you find it affects you? Let us know what you’re doing for others and what you think it might be doing for you!

happy optimistic woman

Optimism, Health, and Longevity

“There are only two things I love in this world: everybody and television.” This is a quote from Kenneth Parcell, the character played by Jack McBrayer on “30 Rock.” Every TV sitcom has its optimist. The against- the -odds type who insist on seeing the good side of every situation. On “Modern Family”, it’s Phil Dunphy, the lovable, if naive, father who says, “When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life will be all like ‘what?!'” Then there’s Ellie Kemper’s character who plays Erin on “The Office” who thinks disposable cameras are meant to be thrown out before the film is developed and throws the camera in the bin with a smile on her face. Laugh at them though we might, it seems like these charmingly oblivious characters may be on to something. A longer life.

Optimism and Longevity
Researchers at Harvard University have found that a having a highly optimistic outlook may lead to a reduced risk of an early death from heart disease, stroke, and cancer. According to co-author Eric Kim, there are three possible explanations for the connection. ‘The first is that optimistic people just tend to act in healthier ways and there are a lot of studies showing that optimists eat healthier, they exercise more,” said Kim.

Another theory has to do with coping abilities. Optimists tend to accept disagreeable circumstances more easily and adapt accordingly. They are also more likely to seek support from friends and family.

The third, and perhaps most interesting, reason is that optimism has a direct impact on biological function and is associated with more antioxidants and less inflammation. The 2004 Nurses’ Health study measured the optimism level of 70,000 women by asking them questions about subjects including expectations, relaxation, and social activities. They found that the more optimistic ladies had an almost 30% lower risk of death from major diseases than the other women.

Can We Control It?
Researchers say that about 25% of our optimism is genetic and the rest is up to us. Kim says, “Some of it is within our control; some is not…” and, “some people just don’t want to be more optimistic-its a preference and I think we should respect that. I don’t think we should push it upon people.”

Increasing Optimism
If you are sworn to cynicism, you are not alone. After all, we all identified with Garbage singer Shirley Manson when she crooned about only being “happy when it rains.” However, if you want to take a page from the books of the Phil Dunphys among us, here are some ways to keep optimism in the forefront.

  1. Take some time before going to bed to think about everything you have to be grateful for.
  2. Keep a list of the kind acts you’ve performed.
  3. Separate the different aspects of your life; friends, family, job, relationship and jot down your version of the best expectations you have from each of them.
  4. Spend 20 minutes a day imagining what your life would look like if all these aspects lived up to those expectations.

If you are a real life optimist, we would love to know how you do it. Please send input and advice! We love to hear from you!

Woman looking at pills

Pills to Live Longer?

Longevity and a slow or even stop to the aging process and the increased risk of diseases, wrinkling, and general decrepitude it tends to lead to have long since been an enduring obsession of the human race. If you could take a pill that would let you live longer, be happier, and look younger for longer, would you? For many, this is a given; the goal of a better, longer, happier life is so ubiquitous is may very well be a defining trait of collective human consciousness. And along those lines, there are many researchers and prodigious experts in various fields who are chasing after ways to slow, halt, or even reverse aging.

But how close are we? You may hear a variety of claims regarding life-extending and age-slowing miracle cures, but the sad truth is that if it sounds too good to be true (read: if it’s inconsistent with current well-substantiated medical knowledge and is not, itself backed up by solid research or a consensus of expert opinion), it probably is. Granted, when it comes to supplements for living longer, there is something to be said in edge cases at the very least, but it takes a lot of wading through hoaxes to find it.

Antioxidant Supplements
Antioxidants show some promise for helping slow aging according to the free-radical theory of aging. That said, aforementioned theory lacks a preponderance of evidence and therefore should probably be looked at as a “maybe, maybe not” sort of thing. Further, taking antioxidant supplements has been shown by a lot of well-documented and controlled studies lately to be entirely ineffectual, and maybe even harmful. Of course, that says nothing about obtaining antioxidants through your diet by, say, eating dark leafy greens and sipping red wine in careful moderation, which are, in fact, pretty healthy habits.

Human Growth Hormone
Touted by some snake oil vendors as an anti-aging solution, human growth hormone as a supplement has, in fact, been shown to accelerate aging, and should be avoided at all costs. This hormone is naturally occurring in our bodies and plays a role in growth and development. It is not only not necessary to supplement growth hormone, it’s potentially harmful and just a really bad idea.

Stem Cell Treatments
Stem cells show some promise for medical research, and their discovery was certainly a boon to researchers working on cracking the code of aging, but there are as of yet no reliable end-user applications for them on the market. If someone tries to sell you a “stem cell therapy” of any kind, stay far away.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
There’s good and bad news here. Bad news first: “overloading” on vitamins, which is often recommended for good health and extended youth, is not only entirely useless, it can in many cases be harmful, and depending on what vitamin you’re overloading and by how much, you can end up with anything from nausea to festering, ugly skin lesions. Please don’t do that to yourself.

So how about the good news? Well, while it’s always best to get vitamins and minerals from your diet, because it guarantees they’re easier for your body to absorb and utilize, taking a vitamin supplement (read: not overloading, just taking as much as you need; a.k.a. 100% daily value and never much over) can be pretty beneficial to your overall health, and therefore your chances of living longer and healthier.

What Else Can You Do?
Simple. Eat a varied diet, with only very small portions of meat, mostly fruits, vegetables, and grains, and include plenty of dark, leafy greens. Exercise moderately but regularly, foster healthy relationships with those around you (communicate clearly and openly!), accept what you can’t change, and don’t be afraid to admit when you need help. Work on all the above, and you’ll be well on your way to a long, happy, healthy life.

Beautiful woman in her late forties

Lifespan Gains Research

The one fact of life that unites us all is that we will all age, and we will all die eventually. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around that fact. While you can (and certainly should if it makes you happy) definitely ameliorate the effect of aging and preserve a healthy, happy, beautiful appearance—because mature skin, even with some wrinkles, is pretty too—by taking good care of yourself and using anti-aging skincare products, among other things, there is as of yet no way for homo sapiens sapiens (i.e. human beings) to achieve immortality or eternal youth.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying. Scientists have long sought after immortality, and bioethicists continually debate whether or not it would be desirable or moral to seek it, or to make it available if it were achieved. Progress is slow but steady, and who knows, you might see the average human lifespan extend even further than it already has within your lifetime.

Theories of Aging
Of course, if we’re going to talk about research on aging, it’s necessarily beneficial to discuss the current theories on the how and why of aging, scientifically known as “senescence.” Senescence refers to the phenomenon whereby many (though not all!) cellular organisms—including humans—gradually deteriorate over time, or age. There are multiple theories as to why senescence exists as a phenomenon, and the scientific community has yet to come to a definite consensus as to which are or are not consistent with reality. That said, it is valuable to know the most prominent theories and how you might be able to use the information to make informed choices about how you live your life and treat your body. As such, we’ll review a couple of the most prominent ones below (note: there are many theories of aging, but these two are some of the more prominent and applicable ones).

Genetic Damage
The genetic damage model of aging dictates that senescence occurs because of accumulated damage to cells’ genetic code over time. Every human cell (and indeed, every cell in every cellular organism) has a complete copy of a person’s genetic code in the form of tightly packed DNA strands in the nucleus of the cell. Because one’s genetic code is encoded in a physical form—chromatin/DNA strands—it can be damaged over time, and repeated mitosis (multiplication of cells) can cause errors in the code, which can build up over time. The genetic damage model of senescence dictates that it is this gradually accumulated deterioration of one’s DNA-encoded genome that causes the effect of aging.

While you can’t stop your cells from dividing or accumulating errors in genetic code, you can forestall this process some simply by avoiding sources of damage. Never tan. Ever. In beds or outside (if you want the aesthetic of tanned skin, use a quality tanning lotion, spray tan, etc). Further, always wear SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen. This will prevent UV radiating from further advancing genetic damage.

Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress refers to the phenomenon of free radicals being released in oxidation reactions and damaging cells. The oxidative stress model of senescence, in effect, dictates that an accumulation of cellular damage by free radicals, over time, causes deterioration of cellular structures and function, and ultimately causes many symptoms of aging.

While it can’t be stopped completely, oxidative stress can be managed and ameliorated by including lots of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet. These include red wine, pomegranates, blackberries, dark, leafy greens, and many other. In general, just eat a varied, healthy diet with more vegetables than meat, exercise regularly, and enjoy a single glass of red wine and/or antioxidant-rich fruit juice (like pomegranate) every night, and your body will thank you.