Weird Things Linked To Living Longer

When new health studies come out, they're usually focused on what is bad for our bodies. Sure, we know smoking and red meat aren't great, but now we also have to think about sitting too much, needing sunscreen all the time, and the effects of chronic stress.

Fortunately there are also plenty of researchers looking at the positives. They are studying the small changes we can make every day to lengthen our lives, but more importantly to improve the quality of our lives too. Here are just some of the exciting and weird things linked to living longer.

Optimism

Being a glass half-full kind of person doesn't just make you more fun to be around. It also means you're going to be around far longer than your pessimistic pals. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that optimism affects both your health and your lifespan. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined the health of over 70,000 women. Harvard research fellows Kaitlin Hagan and Eric Kim found that the most optimistic women were 29 percent less likely to die than the least optimistic. When the researchers broke the groups down by disease, the optimistic women still lived longer. The optimistic women were 38 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 16 percent less likely to die of cancer.

So how can feeling a bit happier make you live longer? Well, for one thing, it may affect how you take care of yourself. "We did account for many things . . . People with more optimism have better health habits — they exercise more, eat better — and those things are attributed to lower mortality rates," Hagan told the Boston Globe. "Even accounting for those behaviors, they still have lower chances of death." A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that an optimistic mood was associated with an increase in immune system cells. This may be due to the fact that optimistic people typically don't feel as stressed. It's the body's stress response that can hinder your immune system.

Now say you're not the most optimistic person. You try, but sometimes you just can't get there. Are you doomed to a shorter, less satisfying life? No, if you're willing to change. "The one thing people have asked is, 'I'm not an optimistic person, is that something I should be worried about?'" Hagan told the Boston Globe. "Other studies have shown you can increase your optimism. Optimism is something you can change." Hagan recommends writing down three things you are grateful for everyday to start to increase your level of optimism.

Having kids

Here's a huge score for all the parents out there. Even though it feels like your kids are taking years off your life, they're actually adding to it. A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reported that having children will help you live longer. Researchers found that by age 60, mothers are expected to live 1.5 years longer than their childless gal pals.

The researchers believe that having adult children to care for you adds years to your life. Being a parent may also keep you more social, which we know is associated with longer life. So next time your kids are whining about getting another episode of Bubble Guppies, take a deep breath. It's those whiny little voices that are going to keep you happy and healthy for years to come.

Happiness

Just like your irritatingly-optimistic friend, your super happy friends are also going to outlive all of us. Happiness has a huge effect on both our health and how our brains function.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Sciences found that study participants were up to 35 percent less likely to die during the study duration if they reported feeling happy during the average day. "We had expected that we might see a link between how happy people felt over the day and their future mortality, but we were struck by how strong the effect was," Andrew Steptoe, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, told CNN.

Sarah Pressman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, added that happiness may actually change our brains. The same areas in your brain involved in feeling happy also control inflammation and blood vessels. Happy people have lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol. "There are still some people who see happiness as something fluffy and less scientific — not something they should be worried about like, say, stress or depression," Dr. Pressman told CNN.

Laughter

Laughter has some serious physical benefits. A study from the University of Maryland found that laughter can put you at lower risk for heart disease. When you laugh, your heart, lungs, and muscles receive more oxygen. Laughing stimulates circulation in the body, while helping your muscles relax. It also improves your immune system and decreases painful sensations.

"The old saying that 'laughter is the best medicine,' definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart," Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine explained in a press release. "We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack."

You don't have to be the happiest person to start incorporating laughter into your day. Dr. Miller explained that laughter can actually be a learned behavior. "The ability to laugh, either naturally or as learned behavior, may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer," Dr. Miller said. "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list." Ready to laugh more? Stream a funny movie or grab your girlfriends and hit up a comedy club tonight. Change it up!

Racquet sports

We all know that physical activity leads to a longer, healthier life, but did you know that the type of exercise can make a difference? A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the exercise habits of over 80,000 participants. Once they divided the participants by sport of choice, there was a clear difference in health benefits.

When compared with individuals who did no exercise at all, racquet sports players were 47 percent less likely to die. Swimmers had a 28 percent lower risk, and aerobics fans had a 27 percent lower risk. Interestingly, runners had no difference in mortality risk from the non-exercisers. As a runner myself, I can attest that this is completely unfair. However, it may be time for me to grab a racquet and try this out.

Reading

On a rainy Saturday morning, is there anything better than snuggling in bed with warm coffee, cozy blankets, and a good book? Next time you manage to snag a little you time, don't feel guilty for just sitting around. That book is good for your health!

A recent study from Yale University studied the effects of reading on nearly 4,000 individuals and found some exciting results. The book readers in the group showed a 20 percent reduction in mortality during the 12 years of study follow-up. This benefit was not shown in newspaper or magazine readers, so head to the library or get out your Kindle and get reading.

Japanese living

When you look at health and longevity, the U.S. is not exactly killing it. The country that continues to boast the oldest and healthiest nation is Japan, so what are they doing differently? "Part of that [lifespan] is the traditional Japanese diet," John Beard, director of Aging and Life-course at the World Health Organization (WHO) told CNN. The traditional Japanese diet consists of fresh vegetables and fish. It is typically low in meat and saturated fat.

"But the traditional diet has changed," Beard explained. "Another part of it is lifestyle . . . and that they have systems which identify and treat key issues like blood pressure." In Japan, it's common for the older members of society to still be very active.

Sarah Harper, professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford added another reason why the Japanese tend to thrive in old age. "They tend to have a society which tends to promote a strong family set up and stress-relieving cultural activities," she told CNN. In Japan, grandparents and older family members are valued and taken care of, so start instilling those values in your kids today!

Living near nature

Getting away from it all and escaping to nature is good for the soul. Turns out, it may even help you live longer. Researchers looked at data from the Nurses' Health Study to determine if living near nature affects health and wellbeing. They found that women living in the greenest areas were 12 percent less likely to die than the city dwellers. "We were surprised to see that there was a 12 percent lower rate of mortality," Peter James, a research associate and study author told CNN. "We know already that vegetation can help mitigate the effect of climate change. Our study suggests the potential co-benefit for health."

Sure, living in nature means less pollution, but it could also be good for your mood. Researchers estimated that 30 percent of the benefits of nature are because of the mental health effects. Living near nature makes it easier to workout and see friends. "We were surprised at the magnitude of the mental health pathway," James said.

Don't think you have to go off the grid in order to be happy and live longer. Just add some greens to your life. "I want to point out that 84 percent of study participants live in urban areas," he said. "We are not saying you need to live near a park." Add a plant to your office or plant a tree in your backyard. Look for easy ways to take advantage of those feel-good greens.

Red chili peppers

Spicy food lovers rejoice! A study in PLOS ONE linked eating red chili peppers with a 13 percent lower risk of death. So grab some ice water and eat up.

Researchers aren't exactly sure why these peppers can improve health and help us live longer, but there are a couple of theories. First, spicy foods may help us lose weight. They may also help us eat less overall.

"While the jury's still out on whether or not spicy foods can actually give us a metabolic boost, there's no doubt that eating spicy foods may also have a weight loss benefit," Jaclyn London, R.D. told Good Housekeeping. "That's because when we consume foods with heat, the natural tendency is to slow down while we eat (since it's tough to race through anything with hot peppers!), helping us stay in touch with satiety signals and really stop when we're full — not stuffed."

Higher education

It's time to dust off that old diploma and display it proudly. It's going to help you live longer! A study in the journal PLOS ONE found that those who obtain higher education degrees live longer. In fact, deciding against a college degree could be as dangerous to your health as smoking!

There are a variety of reasons why education leads to a healthier, longer life. For one thing, education gives you more options and control over your life. "[Education] also affects your social network, your access to information, your ability to understand information," Virginia Chang, an associate professor of public health at New York University and of population health at NYU School of Medicine, told USA Today. "People with higher education feel like they have more agency and self-efficacy; they have more cognitive skills to manage any sort of complicated situation, to navigate the health care system; they have more social support."

Having more education also usually equals a higher income, which means better access to healthcare. Even finishing high school has a serious effect on health. "We found that over 145,000 lives could be saved if all of the adults aged 25 to 85 who don't have a high school degree, went on to get a high school degree or equivalent," Patrick Krueger, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado-Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus and a member of the research faculty at the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder told USA Today. "That alone accounts for about 10 percent of all deaths in the U.S. each year."

Facebook friends

Now I found this one shocking. Did you know that going on Facebook can actually lengthen your life? That is, if you do it right. When you use Facebook to create and nurture positive relationships, you'll get the healthy benefits. However, just mindlessly scrolling is not what I'm talking about.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that receiving friend requests not only makes you feel good, it actually puts you at lower risk for dying. So does posting and looking at people's pictures. However, sending friend requests and reading text-only messages has no effect on health.

"Among those who do use social media, overall network size is associated with better health," wrote study authors. "Just like numerous past studies of real world social networks, we find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts." So go ahead and login without guilt. Just make sure you're checking out the pictures and truly connecting with friends both online and in person.

Being a tall drink of water

So not only can you reach the high shelves and gain five pounds without showing it, you tall people have another advantage . . . a longer life!

British researchers studied human bone from an excavation site in northeastern England. They analyzed the length of the bones in relation to when these ancient humans died. They found that the longer the bones, the older those people lived.

"For all bones examined, the odds of death before the age of 30 decreased as bone length increased," the researchers told ABC. To all my fellow short people, there's not much we can do about this one. Just focus on everything else you can change.

Coffee

Starbucks addicts rejoice! A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that coffee is indeed good for your health and can lead to a longer life. Researchers studied over 400,000 people between the ages of 50-71 over 13 years. They found that the more coffee you drink, the less likely you are to die from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, or diabetes. However, it was unclear exactly how much java the study participants were consuming after their first assessment. A study in Circulation also found an association between coffee and a longer life in those individuals who drink one to five cups per day. The coffee drinkers were less likely to die of heart disease, neurological disease, or suicide.

However, this still shouldn't be a green light to go crazy with the caffeine. We don't know if coffee actually protects you from these diseases. "Caffeine itself is an antioxidant, and because of America's coffee habit, coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the current American diet, which could be at play in the results of the study," nutrition expert and author Amy Hendel told Shape.

Bottom line? Don't worry if you need your daily cup of joe to get through the day. However, drinking it purely for health benefits may or may not help.

Longer, happier lives

Ready to improve your quality and length of life? Pick one or two findings from this list and start making changes today. Start a gratitude journal or take a friend to a funny movie. It looks like the more fun and joy you infuse into your life, with a dash of red chili peppers, the longer you'll live. Go get it!