Longevity. Choice not Luck

We recently attended a presentation by the Twin Cities’ HealthPartners at the University of Minnesota. (Go Gophers!) HealthPartners’ Director of Health Promotion, Joel Spoonheim, shared a summary of the latest research in healthy aging and the resulting best practices for longevity health coaching.  

More choice than genes

It was comforting to learn that current research supports a large role for choice in healthy aging. That is, our choices matter more than our genes. Choices in our lifestyle and our attitudes play are bigger factors than our genetics in how long and how well we’ll live. It’s not just luck of the parental draw. Rather, genetics is only about 30% of the mix. That leaves a lot to social circumstance and behavioral choices. So, excluding the genetics slice, the areas of control are:


  • 10% — Physical Environment, environmental quality, and the built environment
  • 40% — Social and Economic Factors, education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety
  • 20% — Clinical Care, including access to care and the quality of care accessed
  • 30% — Health Behaviors, including tobacco use, diet, exercise, substance abuse, and sexual activity

This chart is simplified. There are also interactions or synergies between individual choices and social determinants. Still the conclusion is the same.

We have more choice than not in how well and how long we live.

Longevity Factors

Spoonheim’s conceptual structure for HealthPartners offers the following “Longevity F’s (© 2016, Joel Spoonheim, HealthPartners — the words in bold are HealthPartners’ — the summary is CCRC LifeCast’s interpretation.):”

  1. Fundamentals (education) — you have to know the lessons to use the lessons.
  2. Financial — access to health care matters. There are still big discrepancies in health access, utilization, diagnosis, and treatment. And, results vary widely by income, geography, race and ethnic groups. Timely diagnosis is a big variable. Earlier intervention is better than later. Earlier matters for the big risk factors of hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity. But, it’s important to note that spending more doesn’t mean better results. It’s as much what the money buys and when as how much money.
  3. F(ph)yscial Activity — exercise is a foundation for good health. But it doesn’t have to be in a fancy gym. Walking is the common foundation of f(ph)ysical longevity. (Okay, so they’re cheating with words that start with F. Some of them only sound like F.) The converse is also true. Sitting is bad. More sitting is worse. Stress and sitting are the double whammy.
  4. Fantastic Environment — your environment influences your exercising, eating well, and social engagement. The environment can harm (lead poisoning and molds) or support health.
  5. Food — diet matters, both what and how much. Sugar (and carbohydrates) is the big risk leading to diabetes and the obesity epidemic. Sugar is bad. 
  6. F(ph)enomenal Sleep — good sleep and sleep habits prove to be important in living well. Sleep also minimizes the negative effects of stress. Electronic screens, both TVs and computing devices, in the bedroom disrupt sleep patterns. Electronics at night are bad.
  7. Friends, Family, and Fun (social engagement) — we need to enjoy life with other people. Isolation is bad.
  8. Faith — there’s a lot of proof that faith inspired people live longer and happier. Religiosity is more important than the specific religion. Meditation or prayer appear to reduce stress. Faith helps individuals choose an attitude of gratitude. While, gratitude beats resentment every time.
  9. Focus (purpose) — we need a mission in life. We need to serve others and not just self. Missions or focus may change as we age and our abilities and interests change. Therefore, look for new ways to contribute to the lives of others. It really is better to give than to receive.

So, Joel told us office denizens, chained to a chair and computer screen, that our jobs are killing us. Good to know. Maybe that early retirement plan isn’t such a bad idea.

Social Conformity and Individual Choice

Joel discussed a Finnish example of changing individual behavior through changing societal norms. An article in The Atlantic summarizes the story.

Finland’s North Karelia region suffered from high cardiac morbidity and early mortality. (North Karelia is on the border with Russia. It was the combat front during the Winter War of 1939-1940.  Finland defeated an invasion by the Soviet Union.)  http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/finlands-radical-heart-health-transformation/389766/

Joel Spoonheim of HealthPartners emphasizes the importance of voluntary choice. The Finnish example proves the ability to influence choice through changing societal norms. For instance, smoking is less acceptable today and far fewer people smoke. Some of the attendees wanted the government to intervene to make people live longer. Joel seemed to think this was the wrong question. Well-intended mandates don’t produce the same results as voluntary choices. Or maybe he was cautious to get into politics versus policy. Regardless, government mandates are not the only ways to influence societal norms.

Smile, you’re on Candid Camera

Do you remember the Candid Camera TV show? We’d laugh over our collective susceptibility to social pressures to conform. Watch this classic Candid Camera episode (see below).

It the highlights social conformity expected on elevators. Would you face forward if everyone else was facing backward?



Social Conformity: Why a Supportive Environment Matters

Social conformity is funny when we see others swaying in the breeze. It’s harder to recognize when we’re the ones conforming. And we rarely laugh at our herd behavior.

But this explains why a supportive environment is important. We tend to mimic our friends. If we hang out with obese friends our likelihood of being obese increases. Can you think of ways your environment might be influencing your longevity choices? Does your work encourage or support standing desks or walking during breaks? Who or what are your bad social influences? We can’t always ditch bad influences when they are friends and family. Joel’s suggestion? Dilute, don’t ditch. Broaden your horizons and influences. Seek out better examples.

The Asch conformity experiments were a series of psychological experiments conducted by Solomon Asch during the 1950s. The experiments revealed the degree to which a person’s own opinions are influenced by those of groups. Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group. – Kendra Cherry, (https://verywellmind.com)

Our Conclusion For Longevity

So some simple suggestions for longevity, living long and living well.

All things in moderation.

More fruits and vegetables. Less meat. Lean meat, fish, or protein over animal fats. Less processed sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Limit your screen time. 

Sleep well.

Walk more. Sit less.

Play hard. Laugh out loud and with others.

Engage with a religious tradition.

Manage stress through exercise and reflection (prayer or meditation).

Enjoy time with friends and family.

Volunteer to serve others. Give of yourself.

Express gratitude.

Don’t focus on resentment, yours or others’.

Seek out positive role models in attitude and behaviors. The positive examples will help you dilute the bad influences.

Look ahead. Have a goal.

Don’t dwell on regret.

Don’t expect perfection.

Have a plan to get back on the horse when the longevity habits get interrupted. They will be. Surprise! Humans aren’t perfect.

Learn from setbacks but don’t take them as defeats or failures. That’s life.

Have fun. Enjoy life. Afterall, That’s the point!