5 Science-Backed Indicators That Increase the Odds You’ll Live Longer

Suzie Glassman

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Given the state of the world (or at least the United States) in 2020, it seems like we can’t agree on much. However, I’m sure we can find common ground on the fact we’d all like to live to a ripe old age, and we want to get there looking and feeling good.

I’m in my 40’s, and I’m getting to the point where my parents and family members are starting to show signs of slowing down. It’s tough to watch, but as much as I hate to admit it, I’ll be in their shoes someday.

The United Nations reports data from World Population Prospects: the 2019 Revision predicts one in six people will be over age 65 (including myself) by 2050, up from one in 11 in 2019.

As a health and fitness enthusiast, I want to be one of those 90-year-old grandmas you see cutting a rug in the nursing home with her three besties (ala Golden Girls). It turns out there are five main predictors of how long you’ll live, and they are all things we can improve no matter how old we are.

I’ll go through each of the five and explain the latest research and how you can increase your odds of living longer.

1. VO2 max

Cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) can be measured through something called your VO2 max — a measure of the amount of oxygen your body uses during exercise. A report in Progress In Cardiovascular Diseases explains CRF has emerged as a strong, independent predictor of all-cause and disease-specific mortality (meaning the better your CRF, the less likely you will die).

The link is so strong that the American Heart Association called for physicians to measure CRF as a part of their routine assessments. A large-scale review in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed a total of 25,714 adult men (average age, 43.8 years) who received a medical examination from 1970 to 1993, and followed-up to see how many had died by the end of 1994.

The analysis found low CRF was a strong and independent predictor of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death. Low CRF was also of comparable importance with diabetes and other CVD risk factors (like high blood pressure and high cholesterol).

An accurate measure of your VO2 max requires testing in a lab, but there are a few tests you can do to get a close estimate without forking over a ton of time and some of your hard-earned cash.

Test 1 Row:

Find a Concept 2 rower (they are at most gyms), set the distance to 2000 meters, and row your heart out.

Plug the result into this calculator.

Test 2 Run:

Perform the Cooper Run test. I typically go to the high school track for this, but you can literally lace up your running shoes and do this anywhere.

Run for 12 minutes as hard as you can and record the distance. https://exrx.net/Calculators/MinuteRun

Perform either test (use your normal breathing method) and figure out your baseline. Don’t get caught up on whether it’s 100% accurate. The point is to increase the distance you can run in 12 minutes or decrease the time it takes to row 2K meters.

2. Lean Body Mass

The idea that how much you weigh can predict your risk of death isn’t a stretch. We all know the role obesity plays in disease and life expectancy. Doctors and scientists use a measure called body mass index (BMI) as one of several factors when looking at a person’s overall health.

The CDC defines BMI as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. The biggest problem with BMI is that your weight is made of a few components — the two largest are body fat and muscle mass (or lean body mass). If you have a lot of muscle, your weight will be higher, and your BMI will look worse, even though you’re quite healthy.

Think about it this way. Weight itself isn’t as important as the amount of fat you have to the amount of muscle. Skinny people can be fairly unhealthy if they lack muscle, and larger people can be far healthier if they carry a lot of lean body mass.

A group of researchers set out to study whether greater muscle mass in older adults lowered their risk of death. They analyzed 3,659 participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III, who were 55 years (65 years if women) or older at the time of the survey. They used a method called bioelectrical impedance to measure body fat percentage in the adult.

As hypothesized, in older Americans, higher muscle mass relative to body height lessened the risk of death over a 10–16 year follow up. Scientists could not explain the relationship by factors like hypertension, diabetes, insulin resistance, etc. meaning that relative muscle mass is a useful marker for survival in older adults.

There are several ways you can measure your body fat percentage. Home scales aren’t all that dependable. Consider finding a lab that uses hydrostatic weighing, BodPod analysis, or a Dexa scan if you want a more accurate measure.

3. Leg strength

Research in leg strength shows it pays never to skip leg day. The weaker our legs, the more likely we are to fall or to have trouble standing up again once down. The CDC reports falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among adults age 65 and older, and the age-adjusted fall death rate is increasing.

The Health, Aging, and Body Composition study was the first to connect leg strength with life expectancy. Researchers recruited 3,075 men and women who could walk a quarter of a mile and climb 10 steps without difficulty at the start of the study and followed them for 16 years.

They found leg strength at the start of the study predicted their overall health at the end. Another study found similar results — determining that leg strength was the biggest predictor of physical function in the future.

You can work to develop leg strength at any age. If you’re fairly sedentary, start walking more or consider a standing or treadmill desk. You can take up a sport you enjoy as a hobby or start swimming. You can also practice exercises like squats, lunges, or step-ups from the comfort of your home.

4. Grip strength

Grip strength refers to your ability to hold on to items based on their weight and to exert pressure on them (like opening the jar of pickles). Researchers now believe grip strength can predict your overall health, as well as your risk of cardiovascular disease.

A meta-analysis of 42 research papers, including more than three million participants, found linear relationships between grip strength and risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular diseases within grip strength of 56 kg. It could be that people with a stronger grip are more likely to exercise or are healthier in ways the researchers didn’t study.

Improving your grip strength now is one of the best things you can do for your future self. Another review found handgrip strength has predictive validity for the decline in cognition, mobility, functional status, and mortality in older populations. Again, this relationship may not be causal, so keep that in mind. Even so, it’s fairly easy to practice grip-strengthening exercises.

You can measure grip strength with a device called a dynamometer. Squeeze it to reveal the amount of force applied. You can use the same tool to develop your grip strength, or you can practice exercises in the gym or at home.

5. Foot speed

New studies are beginning to point to how fast you walk as another indicator of your overall health and longevity. Scientific American reports,

A new analysis of walking speed studies shows that — down to the tenth of a meter per second — an older person’s pace, along with their age and gender, can predict their life expectancy just as well as the complex battery of other health indicators.
Of the 34,485 adults in the studies, people with average life expectancy walked at about 0.8 meter per second. For those with a gait speed of one meter per second or faster “survival was longer than expected by age and sex alone,” the researchers noted in their article.

Foot speed likely has something to do with leg strength, and while walking doesn’t feel all that hard, it requires using a wide range of muscles. People may begin walking slower as their strength declines. If this happens, it can be an early indication that something is going wrong (just like an increase in blood pressure can serve as a warning signal).

Final Thoughts

As much as I would’ve liked to title this article “How Not to Die,” I realize you could be the strongest, fastest-walking, pickle-jar-opening guy in the old folks’ home and still fall prey to any number of tragic accidents. However, millions of people will buy countless unsubstantiated supplements and try any number of diets to improve the odds of living longer.

If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money or experiment with different nutritional strategies, you might as well know what science says are the strongest predictors of living to ripe old age. What’s most promising is you can improve any one of these without medication, surgery, or genetic intervention.

Focus on improving these five factors now for a healthy and active retirement whenever that might be:

  1. VO2 max through cardiovascular exercise
  2. Lean body mass through resistance training (lifting weights)
  3. Leg strength through walking, jogging, swimming, or weights (including your body weight)
  4. Grip strength through devices sold for this purpose or through specific at home or gym exercises
  5. Leg speed through walking and exercise

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I'm a reporter covering the Douglas County School District in Colorado.

Denver, CO
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