Church, Chocolate, Sex and 3 Other Keys to Living Longer

Last Updated Apr 21, 2011 10:05 AM EDT

Eat better, exercise more, eliminate unhealthy habits -- you've heard these messages (many times) before as ways you can increase your lifespan and your healthspan, or the period of time that you're active and live independently.

Now let's look at some surprising steps you can take that studies suggest might also improve your life expectancy. But you need to take these suggestions with a grain of salt: With any report that starts with the words "Studies show that ...", you have to ask yourself: Is the effect causation or correlation? In other words, does the activity actually cause you to live longer, or is it just a coincidence? Even if it's just a coincidence that a specific activity is correlated with increased life expectancy, the reasons are insightful.

Bonus; if you don't like exercise and vegetables, the standard advice for boosting your health might be tough to follow. Not so with these (especially 3 and 5).

1. Floss Your Teeth
One study shows that flossing your teeth can add 6.4 years to your life expectancy. Here I expected correlation, not causation. In other words, I expected that people who are careful to take the usual steps to be healthy -- eating well and getting proper exercise -- are more likely to floss their teeth, but that flossing doesn't actually help you live longer.

Well, I was wrong. Flossing and overall dental health reduces the chances of infectious diseases and has other beneficial effects. Plus, if you lose your teeth and can't do something as basic as chew your food, you're in trouble.

So I'm now taking a few minutes each night to floss my teeth, and my dentist is happy.

2. Go to Church
Many studies associate praying and attending religious services with longer life expectancies. Does going to church actually cause you to live longer? Does God take better care of believers?

It's tricky to discern the answer. Certainly there are many factors that indicate this factor may just be a coincidence. For example, people who attend church are less likely to smoke or abuse drugs or alcohol. They also have a significant social network and support, which is particularly critical in your later years. They're also more likely to be employed, giving them greater financial resources.

And some studies show that meditating and taking time to reduce stress has a beneficial health effect, so could this be why prayer is associated with improved longevity?

You'll need to decide for yourself whether the effect is causation or correlation. But regardless of your beliefs, make sure you build a good social network, don't smoke or abuse alcohol, and take time out of your day to remove yourself from stress and reflect on your life.

3. Have Sex Often

Some studies associate an active love life with better health and longevity. Once again, the causation vs. correlation argument comes into play. Are healthier people more likely to have sex? One thing does seem likely -- having positive relationships does have beneficial health effects. And sex releases helpful endorphins and hormones that have help your body.

Actually, when you think about it, who cares if it's causation or correlation?

4. Dance

Many studies link dancing with improved health and longevity, and the causation effect might seem obvious. Dancing is good exercise; it's particularly good for aerobic exercise and balance, which is important in your later years. I've heard Dr. Gene Cohen, an expert on brain health, talk about the beneficial effects of ballroom dancing on preventing Alzheimer's and dementia, because you're constantly making decisions and using parts of your brain that normally don't get exercised.

Plus, dancing should be fun and give you beneficial social contacts. And husbands -- it's great for spicing up your romantic life, thereby helping with Step 3!


5. Eat Chocolate and Drink Red Wine
And if ballroom dancing doesn't help with your love life, try chocolate and red wine. Actually, studies show a positive causation effect -- both of these foods contain powerful antioxidants that can improve your health. (Just make sure you floss after eating the chocolate.)

Finally, there are things you can do to make your life richer even if it's not longer. For one, turn off the TV, or at least watch less. Then you'll have more hours of life for romance, dancing, and all the other fun things in life. For that matter, start on your "bucket list" -- the things you've always wanted to do. You'll add more life to your life, and your life might seem longer.

Speaking of making your life seem longer, here's some dubious advice: Marry an actuary or accountant. Supposedly your life will be so boring, it will seem to last forever. According to my wife, good advice but for the wrong reason!

Image from iStockphoto contributor mammamaart
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    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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