Want to live longer? Influence your genes.
By making healthy lifestyle choices, you can self-engineer genetic alterations to prevent disease and boost longevity.
Published September 13, 2022
11 min read
Take a moment to visualize your favorite place in the world that requires you to walk up an incline. Maybe it’s the Spanish Steps in Rome or the Potala Palace in Tibet. Maybe it’s a peaceful hill in your local park. Or the top row in your favorite team’s stadium.
Now imagine that you’ve reached the summit. Look down at the people who are walking towards you. There are two types of people.
First, there’s the spry set. These are the bouncy creatures that kangaroo from bottom to top. They are smiling, laughing, barely breaking a sweat and enjoying the journey. They are excited to reach their destination and despite the fact it takes effort, they can’t wait for what awaits them when they arrive.
Second, there’s the group that’s struggling. Those who have to stop and catch their breath 10 times on the way up. Every. Step. Takes. So. Much. Out. Of. Them. Huff. Puff. Are. We. There. Yet?
You’re probably more like one of these groups than the other. What is the difference between these groups, other than their speed and ease of travel? It could be their age or size. It is most likely their overall health.
But you know what it’s less likely to be? They are born with certain genes. It’s their lifestyle choices.
The Great Age Reboot is the name my co-authors–Peter Linneman and Albert Ratner–and I gave our new book, published by National Geographic. The “great age restart” is also the term we use to describe the transformation that is occurring. We are seeing breakthroughs in medicine and health that will allow us to live longer and live better. These advances will have a profound impact on our society, economy, and future.
To prepare for the great age reboot, you have to be willing to change–not only to get and stay healthy but also to have enough health to repair yourself when repairs are needed. There is a bright future. However, to enjoy it and to enjoy your longevity, you’ll need to become a genetic engineer. The upside? The upside? You can literally change your family’s medical destiny – if you want.
In the United States about 40 percent of premature deaths–defined as occurring before age 75–are related to lifestyle choices, behaviors we can change. Your lifestyle choices and genetics have a direct impact on how your genes work, and thus your body’s ability to function.
Studies of human gene expression show that if you choose to make certain lifestyle changes, you can influence whether your genes are “on” or “off.” In fact, your choices can influence an estimated 1,200 of the 1,500 genes that are on and probably can influence the other estimated 21,000 that are off.
For example, after implementing changes to their physical activity, stress management, and diet regimens, men were able to turn off genes associated with prostate cancer growth and turn on a gene that produced a protein that causes cancer cells to self-destruct. The same principle applies to breast and colon cancer. Lifestyle changes turned on genes that fight cancer and off those that promote it.
Science tells us that by the time you are about 60 years old, 75 percent of your health outcomes are determined by your choices. This is genetic self-engineering. Each healthy act activates genes that promote youth and disables genes that age you. This is the result of millions upon millions of years of evolution. Good choices and the proteins that result from them are more likely to be good. Conversely, activating bad genes can lead to more destructive and bad genes being activated.
You have the ability to change how your body works and reacts–and ultimately how healthy you are and how long you may live. We will give you three reasons why living a healthy lifestyle is important.
You should build a strong foundation now. You probably know people who’ve survived a horrific disease, accident, or surgery–and it was said that their preexisting physical and mental strength fortified their bodies for battle and made them better equipped to endure stresses. That’s true with the recent COVID-19 pandemic: Over 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths were among people older than 65, and severe cases are more likely for those with preexisting conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and immune dysfunction.
The same thinking will apply when we’re talking about longevity–that is, healthy choices will help prevent chronic disease and set you up for a long life. The more you are in good physical condition, the better chances that anti-aging procedures will be performed at a high level and with fewer complications. A stronger start means a stronger finish.
It’s unclear how many reboots you’ll get. Perhaps in a utopian 25th-century world, there will exist some dressing-room-like catacomb that allows you to walk into a booth, press a few buttons, and erase every cigarette you’ve smoked, every couch you’ve potatoed, every potato you’ve ever fried. It’s more likely that your chances of a reboot will be limited in the near future. Your ability to maximize their effectiveness depends on your commitment to improving your biology by implementing proven methods such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, smoking cessation, and stress management.
No matter what happens, your brain needs you. The human brain remains the final biological frontier. Even if science eventually allows us to fix our cells, genes and other mechanisms that make up our bodies, our brains will still be the final biological frontier. It is imperative that you self-engineer the DNA switches in your brain to maximize your chances of living a long and healthy life. These steps are the same ones you can take to protect your body.
The actions outlined below have been shown to have the most influence over your biological function. You are not going to behave perfectly every single time. Your longevity is more dependent on what you do most of your time. How can we all work together to make better decisions?
We are in a peak period for access to information and have the most medically advanced health industry of all time. Yet two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and millions will die or become ill from choice-related health problems, including heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, diabetes, and dementia (yes, the data show that healthy lifestyles are associated with a 60 percent reduction in the risk of developing dementia).
Finding the right way to motivate ourselves to make better lifestyle choices is not easy, and we Americans have very effectively exported our bad habits to almost every other developed country. We do have data that shows what works. Several factors are common among people who successfully make positive lifestyle changes:
They achieve “normals”–our term for satisfactory health metrics or health and wellness behaviors–on six indicators. * The healthiest bodies are the ones that meet the goals set by the six key indicators listed below.
*Six key indicators of good health
Six key indicators of the optimal health status that promotes longevity:
Blood pressure of less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic
BMI (a measurement of height-to-weight ratio) of less than 27 or, better, a waist-to-height ratio of 0. 40 to 0. 55
LDL cholesterol (a risk factor for heart disease) of less than 70 mg/dL
Fasting blood sugar (associated with diabetes) of less than 106 mg/dL
Urine free of cotinine (an indicator of tobacco use)
Completion of a stress management program
They use technology. The marketplace is full of all kinds of trackers that provide real-time feedback about our health choices. You can track your steps, heart rate, calories, sleep quality and more. Although not everyone will need or want these aids, technology can be a great motivator by setting benchmarks and goals. It can also help you reach your goals, especially when it is combined with the support of a coach. Human touch is crucial to make technology meaningful and sustainable.
They leverage financial incentives. It’s a basic human reaction: Significant financial incentives have always been a driver of behavior change. It all comes down to how government and industry reward employees who stay healthy. You can improve your financial position by having lower medical costs, better work productivity, and less concern about the impact of pandemics.
They have a buddy, or several. You need a built-in ecosystem with your own tribe–a community of people who support one another in pursuit of their goals. It can be one person, a small group, or a large tribe of people who are all working towards the same goals. Many people may have a combination of these supporters as they go through the process of a wellness journey. The variable that most predicts success is having a partner or partners in your pursuit for behavior change.
They do the little things that matter. Going into a hip replacement at age 59 and again at 64, co-author Peter Linneman was fit, did physical therapy before the surgery, and actively stuck with it after surgery; as a result, he was able to quickly and fully recover. Peter’s physical therapist pointed out that most patients go into surgery weak and ignore post-op therapy. They dismiss it, thinking it’s not important. This is how many people think about their health: Why bother with the small things? They really do matter. Yes! Every decision is important, and the more you live, the more it will add up.
Science is about to offer you the Garden of Eden. This is your chance to live a longer life, or, even better, to live a longer, healthier life.
But taking advantage of it will be up to you.
Michael Roizen, M.D. , is the chief wellness officer emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic, a professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, and author of four number one New York Times best-selling books.
This story appears in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.