Many of us are constantly looking for ways to improve our health and minimise our risk of disease, in hopes that we will live longer and feel better as we age. And, thanks to advances in modern medicine, life expectancy in developed countries has increased over the decades. According to the latest World Bank figures, women and men in Hong Kong lead the world in average life expectancy, at 88 years and 82 years respectively. If your parents or grandparents did not live to an old age, you might think that you’re destined for the same fate, but this isn’t true. According to the well-known Danish Twin Study of 2,872 twins born between 1870 and 1900, about 20 per cent of life expectancy is determined by genetics, while the other almost 80 per cent is influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors. We spoke to experts and looked at studies to find out which lifestyle factors in particular are linked to a longer life. Here are four ways that you might add years to yours. Eat more whole plant foods, less meat A Norwegian study found that switching from a typical Western diet to a more optimal one from the age of 20 could increase life expectancy by more than a decade for women and men. The largest gains in years of life expectancy would be made by eating more legumes , whole grains and nuts, and less red meat and processed meat. Interestingly, the researchers noted that switching to these plant foods at age 60 could increase life expectancy by eight years for women and 8.8 years for men; 80-year-olds could gain approximately 3.4 years by making such dietary changes. The study, by the University of Bergen, was published in February 2022 in the journal, PLoS Medicine . Consuming more whole plant foods can help you live a longer life because they are associated with a decreased risk of developing and/or dying from many chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, says Jennifer Paul, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition programme coordinator at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the United States. “Foods like legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. They are also low in calories and saturated fat, and have no cholesterol. With the exception of nuts, whole plant foods are also low in fat. What saves your health, money and the planet? A whole food plant-based diet “Although nuts are higher in fat, they contain healthy unsaturated fats, plant sterols, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. This combination of qualities is health-promoting. For example, fibre helps us with digestion, weight loss, heart health and cancer prevention.” On the other hand, meat contains saturated fat, animal-based iron, cholesterol and animal protein, which poses health risks, says Paul. It also lacks fibre. “Red and processed meats, in particular, can cause cancer. The World Health Organization has classified processed meat as ‘Group 1, carcinogenic’ to humans, and red meat as ‘Group 2A, probably carcinogenic’ to humans. One analysis … noted that people who slept less than seven hours a night had a higher incidence of chronic disease, less disease-free years and a shorter lifespan Dr Kenny Pang, Asia Sleep Centre, Singapore “[Eating] processed meat, red meat and poultry also increases your risk for heart disease. It was found that consuming 50g per day of processed meat and red meat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 18 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively. Consuming red and processed meats may also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.” Even if you can only eat a few whole plant-based meals a week, Paul says, it’s better than nothing because, as you add more health-promoting plant foods to your diet, you will by default reduce your intake of animal products. Sleep at regular hours and avoid long naps Getting sufficient high-quality sleep every night keeps our immune system healthy , reduces stress and improves our overall wellbeing. A bad night’s sleep is linked to higher risk of fatal disease According to Dr Kenny Pang, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Asia Sleep Centre in Singapore, when we don’t get enough sleep, our body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol can increase our risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, stress can affect our ability to sleep, thus perpetuating an unhealthy cycle. “Some studies have found that chronic sleep deprivation may lead to serious conditions and illnesses like obesity, depression , diabetes , hypertension, stroke and heart disease ,” he adds. “For example, one meta-analysis of three large studies noted that people who slept less than seven hours a night had a higher incidence of chronic disease, less disease-free years and a shorter lifespan, while the British Whitehall II study found that people who slept less than five hours a night had double the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.” Pang says that the average adult should get six to eight hours of sleep a night. It’s also important to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Taking short naps during the day can boost your mood and energy and help you catch up on lost sleep. A 20-minute nap should be sufficient, but watch that it doesn’t extend to one hour. Tips for a healthy heart – are you taking care of yours? Research presented in 2020 by the European Society of Cardiology found that napping for over 60 minutes was associated with a 30 per cent higher chance of death by any cause and a 34 per cent higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease, compared to no napping at all. Interestingly, the researchers noted that the increased risk of death was associated with people who slept more than six hours per night and took long naps during the day. Prioritise your emotional wellbeing Taking steps to prevent depression can improve your chances of living longer, says Hong Kong-based psychologist Dr Adrian Low. “Depression has long been linked to a variety of health problems, in part because it may lead to physiological changes in the body, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, for instance. “It can also contribute to the development of potentially life-threatening habits such as overeating, binge-eating or not eating at all, physical inactivity, smoking, and an excessive consumption of alcohol.” The not-quite alcoholic who ran away from the bottle after 40 years Having a positive outlook can increase your will to live, making you more proactive about your health and therefore less vulnerable to illness. You are also less likely to experience stress and may reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases or disorders. How do you cultivate a more positive outlook? Low offers a few suggestions. “Focus on the good things, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they seem; think of the people or moments that bring you comfort or happiness; express gratitude to others at least once a day; surround yourself with people who will lift you up and help you see the bright side; practise positive self-talk ; and share positivity by complimenting or doing something nice for someone.” Get active, and do intense workouts for an extra boost Regular exercise has numerous benefits – it can keep you trim, give you more energy, help you relax and improve your mood. It can also keep your heart, lungs and brain healthy, thus lowering your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. No cure for Alzheimer’s, but we can narrow the odds of developing it Research published in 2020 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that vigorous-intensity exercise can help you live longer. According to the researchers, people with a higher proportion of vigorous physical activity to total amount of exercise saw an increase in lifespan with a lower early death rate from all causes. How much vigorous activity is ideal? About 150 minutes per week, or just over 20 minutes a day. Vigorous activity is anything that causes you to breathe hard and fast, and, according to the American Heart Association, requires you to work at 70 per cent to 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Examples include hiking or walking briskly uphill, running, swimming laps, lifting weights , and running. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .