The hard science of medicine gets all the credit for staving off disease and adding on years. But practices that strengthen your inner life your mind, mood, and sense of connection count, too, often as much as any solution that comes from a scalpel or prescription pad. "There's good evidence that emotional, spiritual, and social factors are all important for longevity," says Gary Small, M.D., director of the Center on Aging at UCLA. Research shows that these four strategies help the most.
Let The Sunshine In
- What we know: People who have a positive outlook when they're young (measured by a personality test they took as college students) end up living longer, report two recent studies that followed participants for 30 and 40 years, respectively. Even at age 50, just feeling upbeat about getting older is linked, on average, to seven more years of life, research at Yale University has found. What's the connection? "Negative emotions like hostility and bitterness are bad for overall health and specifically for the heart," says Stephen Post, Ph.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York. On the upside, women with sunny dispositions enjoy better heart health over a 10- to 13-year follow-up, they had far less arterial narrowing than more dour women, a study from the University of Pittsburgh reported.
- What you can do: Become an extrovert join a community group, try a new activity, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Acting gregarious can make you feel more outgoing, which is linked to a more positive mood, researchers at Wake Forest University have found.
Do Good Works
- What we know: People who volunteer at two or more organizations have a 44 percent lower death rate than those who don't do any charitable work, the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, CA, reports. "That's comparable to exercising four times a week," Post points out. Like working out, helping others seems to boost antibodies. "We're establishing a biology of compassion involving the immune system, brain, and hormones," says Post.
- What you can do: Sign up for Big Brothers Big Sisters or any other group in which you can be a mentor. "People tend to find greater meaning in activities that pass the torch to a younger generation," says Post. Maybe because their involvement is so rewarding, 87 percent of mentors engage in at least one other volunteer activity and reap extra health benefits versus just 40 percent of volunteers who aren't mentors.
Say a Prayer
- What we know: Regularly stepping through the doors of a house of worship may slow your progress toward the pearly gates by seven to 14 years, a University of Texas survey showed. Partly, that's due to the fact that faith communities provide support, and religious people tend to avoid life-shortening vices like smoking or drinking excessively. But even when you factor out healthy habits, older people who attend religious services once a week are 46 percent less likely to die over six years than people who go to services less often, a study from Duke University Medical School found. Attendance is only part of the picture; it's the underlying belief system that provides comfort and improves health, says Duke researcher Harold G. Koenig, M.D.
- What you can do: Bolster public worship with private spiritual practices like meditation and prayer. "The combination of the two is linked to the best outcomes," says Dr. Koenig. Even if you harbor doubts, join a congregation: The spiritual wisdom you'll gain may change your outlook and boost your health.