Most of us want to live a long, healthy life, but people in certain areas of the world actually live much longer on average than others. Research shows that people in Japan live the longest on average, followed by residents of Sweden and Norway. "There are a number of factors that contribute to this, including the food, physical activity level, health care system and community system in those countries," Dr. Rashi Aggarwal, associate professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life.
The average American lives to 76.4 years old, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the shortest lifespan the U.S. has seen in almost two decades. In Japan, the average life expectancy is 84.3 years, per the World Health Organization (WHO). While there are some factors you can't control when it comes to longevity, such as genetics, doctors say there are several things you can do to increase the odds of living a longer, healthier life. Here's what they suggest.
Follow a mostly plant-based diet
"We know a lot about what is good for us overall when it comes to diet," Aggarwal says. "Whether it's hard for us to do or not is a different question." Research consistently shows that eating a mostly plant-based diet and consuming less meat is helpful for longevity.
"As much as you can, avoid red meat, avoid processed foods and fast foods," Aggarwal says. Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that it's important to be sure that your diet contains plenty of green, leafy vegetables, berries and other foods that are rich in phytonutrients, which are chemicals that plants produce to keep themselves healthy. The Mediterranean diet in particular, which emphasizes plant-based foods and minimizes meats, has also been linked to longevity.
Take your time at meals
Eating healthy isn't just about what you put in your body, Aggarwal says, it's also about your relationship with food.
"In America, we don't sit with our food the way some other countries do where it's OK to eat slowly and take pleasure with our meals," she says. "Eating should be the time where you stop and eat joyfully and mindfully." This can help lower the risk of overeating, which can lead to excess body fat and raise your risk of several health conditions, she says.
Try to be active
"Exercise is the closest thing we have to a miracle drug," Kaiser says, noting that it can help support good physical and cognitive health. Aggarwal agrees. "If you're able to, exercise is a wonderful thing," she says.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity each week. If it's difficult to fit a regular exercise routine into your life, Aggarwal recommends doing your best to be active however you can. That means taking the stairs, walking to the grocery store if you're able to, going for regular walks or even doing active chores around your house, she says.
Take care of your mental health and stay social
Having mental health conditions such as depression is linked to a shorter lifespan. Experts stress that it's behaviors associated with those conditions that decrease longevity, including alcohol and drug use and inactivity, which is why it's important to seek help if you're struggling.
Loneliness and social isolation can also negatively impact health and are on par with obesity, physical inactivity and smoking, according to the CDC. Social isolation also comes with a 50% higher risk of developing dementia, per the CDC. The good news is that it doesn't have to take a lot of effort to combat isolation. "Simply taking a moment connect with someone — even through a brief phone call — can reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression and deliver brain-protecting benefits," Kaiser says.
Don't neglect your sleep
It's easy to eat into your designated sleeping time when life is busy, but experts say it's important to make sleep a priority for longevity and overall health. Research shows that lack of sleep, particularly in middle age, can increase the risk of developing dementia by 30%.
It's generally recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but Aggarwal acknowledges that everyone is different. Still, she stresses the importance of sleep for health and mood. "Nothing can make up for sleep," she says. "Most people know how much sleep they need to feel good — try to get that."
Do what you can to manage stress
Stress is inevitable, but it's important to manage it as best as you can, Aggarwal says. "Having healthy coping strategies, including mindfulness meditation, can help," she says.
Bringing your attention to your breathing and finding things you appreciate about your life "can initiate a very positive cascade of events in your mind and body," Kaiser says. "This simple practice can actually unlock the power of mediation and help curb stress while initiating a relaxation response in your body." That, in turn, can slow your heart rate, relax your blood vessels to lower your blood pressure and improve your mood, he says.
Managing stress also includes doing your best to avoid being hard on yourself up when you can't make healthy choices all of the time. "If you're not able to incorporate these things all the time, don't feel guilty," Aggarwal says. "Feeling guilty is even worse for your health."