I took a 'death quiz,' and it said that 7 small changes could add 12 years to my life
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Of course I can't know that for sure, but that's an estimate based on my answers to a detailed questionnaire from the Living to 100 life expectancy calculator. The calculator predicts an approximate age at death using metrics like diet, exercise, family history, and social life.
Thomas Perls, an attending geriatrician at Boston Medical Center and professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, developed the online quiz based on his study of centenarians. By changing our habits to reflect those of the people with the longest lives, he says, we can add years to our own.
It's difficult to quantify how many years you can add to your life by following a set of recommendations - everyone has different family histories, habits, proclivities, challenges, and genes - but the calculator tries to tie a specific number of years to good health practices and bad habits based on research. As soon as it tells you your estimated life span, it provides some concrete suggestions on how you can extend it.
What if I want to live longer than my prescribed 86 years? To do that, I'd have to make a few changes - starting with my diet and exercise regimen.
Living to 100
1. Cut out processed meat: +4 years
The first question on the calculator's nutrition section asked how many servings of "processed meats of fast foods" I eat a week. I don't usually eat fast food like McDonald's. I do eat processed meat, usually in sandwiches or on pizza - which can also be considered fast food. By cutting out processed meat and pizza entirely, I could live four years more, according to the calculator's recommendations.
A 2013 cohort study in BMC Medicine offers some evidence to support that recommendation. It found that diets with higher levels of processed meat (more than 20 grams a day) were associated with 3% of the premature deaths in a group of 450,000 Europeans. Those meaty diets were also associated with a 72% higher risk of dying from heart disease and an 11% higher risk of dying from cancer.
Despite these dire-seeming numbers, experts warn that the risks of processed meat may be exaggerated and that those most likely to eat processed meat were also likely to smoke, according to the Guardian.
Luckily for me, I don't smoke, but I apparently don't get enough calcium in my diet.
2. Get enough calcium: +.5 years
I have about a cup and a half of milk a day, usually in cereal or coffee. The life expectancy calculator says that might not be enough calcium to stave off osteoporosis, a disease that gets worse with age and disproportionately affects older women.
Osteoporosis, a malfunction that occurs when the body doesn't form enough new bone tissue from a lack of calcium, can increase the risk of bone fractures. Roughly half all of women over 50 will break a bone. I can get calcium from supplements or other food sources like cheese or green leafy vegetables.
3. Exercise every day: +5 years
Even if I made these changes to my diet, it's clear I don't exercise enough. Exercising 6 or 7 days a week could add up to 5 years to my life - a pretty impressive addition. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least twice a week, though some believe that minimum should be raised to three days. The health benefits of exercise are endless. It lowers the risk of heart disease and diabetes and improves mental health and mood. It even increases the chances of living longer, according to the CDC.
Starting a good exercise regimen now can also help me maintain good fitness habits as I get older, when exercise is most crucial. A 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even formerly inactive elderly experienced the benefits of exercise, according to Reuters. This is especially important as mobility typically decreases the older one gets.
4. Visit the doctor regularly: +.5 years
I could eat better and exercise more, but I'd still have to visit the doctor on a regular basis.
Living to 100
5. Spend more time with family and friends: +.5 years
Seeing the doctor and having the right diet are important, but it's easy to forget how much our friends and family matter when it comes to longevity.
Living to 100
Good social lives also "lead to increased cognitive stimulation and activity, which are linked to healthy aging," Perls said. A 2010 PLOS Medicine study also shows that "people with stronger relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships."
Even if I see my friends and family more often, it's clear I'd need to reign in my bad habits.
6. Decrease exposure to harmful UV rays: +.5 years
Living to 100
The CDC recommends staying in the shade, wearing protective clothing, and using sunscreen during prolonged hours in the sun. A recent study that analyzed 200-year old data found that "high levels of sun exposure during the year of birth may increase infant mortality and shorten the average life span of a population" by as much as 5 years, according to Live Science.
7. Floss teeth every day: +1 year
Another bad habit I have is not flossing every night. I only floss when I remember, and it turns out that may be shortening my life. Not flossing daily leads to a whole host of dental problems like gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth loss. People who have gum disease are at higher risk for diseases that affect more than one area of the body, including kidney disease and diabetes.
I have a few changes I need to make if I want to live to 98, according to this calculator. Some of them might be worth it, like cutting down on processed meats and exercising more regularly.
But the calculator also recommended completely cutting out caffeine to live half a year more, even though research on whether caffeine helps or hurts life expectancy is mixed.
A 2012 National Cancer Institute study that followed 400,000 thousand people aged 50 to 71 from 1995 to 2008 found that "men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10% less likely to have died than those who didn't drink coffee," according to The New York Times.
On the other hand, Time reported that drinking certain kinds of coffee can raise LDL cholesterol and cause problems for those with existing cholesterol issues.
Still, it's hard to believe that caffeine is worth 6 months of life. The coffee recommendation highlights the problem with calculators like these - it's difficult to quantify how many years a specific habit is worth. For now, I think I'll stick to my morning cup of joe.