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Even though the average life expectancy in the United States has dipped in recent years, there are more people than ever living to 100.
In 2021, there were 89,739 centenarians living in the United States, nearly twice as many as there were two decades ago.
So, what changed over the past 20 years? A few things:
- There have been more medical advances that allow people to live longer.
- Fewer people are smoking, and more are following a lifestyle that protects their heart health.
- Rapid population growth has also contributed to the influx of centenarians.
What about genetics?
While it’s true that genetics can play a role in enjoying life to 100 years of age, lifestyle is much more important. And there’s one factor in your lifestyle that may give you a leg up in your quest to reach the century mark — and it focuses on one specific organ….
The longevity organ
The gut microbiome, made up of trillions of “friendly” bacteria and other microbes, is proving to be central to our health.
A thriving gut microbiome not only contributes to your overall gut health but can affect dementia risk and support mental health, promote good sleep and influence the health of your skin, muscles, heart and immune system. And when your gut microbiome is disrupted, it can trigger conditions like diabetes and obesity.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen studied the intestinal bacteria of 176 healthy Japanese centenarians to determine whether their gut microbiome had any influence on their longevity.
“Previous research has shown that the intestinal bacteria of old Japanese citizens produce brand new molecules that make them resistant to pathogenic — that is, disease-promoting — microorganisms,” says Joachim Johansen, a postdoc and first author of the study.
What these researchers discovered was that these centenarians had a unique combination of intestinal bacteria and bacterial viruses. In fact, one of the study’s findings was that specific viruses in the intestines can have a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome.
“Our intestines contain billions of viruses living of and inside bacteria, and they could not care less about human cells; instead, they infect the bacterial cells,” says Simon Rasmussen, a University of Copenhagen professor and last author of the study.
The researchers also found high biological diversity in the gut bacteria of the centenarians, which is usually associated with a healthy gut microbiome. This better protects them against aging-related diseases, Johansen notes.
The virus-bacteria connection
The researchers designed an algorithm to map the intestinal bacteria and bacterial viruses of the centenarians.
“We want to understand the dynamics of the intestinal flora,” Rasmussen says. “How do the different kinds of bacteria and viruses interact? How can we engineer a microbiome that can help us live healthy, long lives? Are some bacteria better than others?”
The researchers hope to use the algorithm to describe the balance between viruses and bacteria and determine what that optimal balance should be to protect the body against disease.
The obvious next step, Rasmussen says, is to find out whether only some or all of us have this combination of bacteria and viruses.
“Intestinal bacteria are a natural part of the human body and of our natural environment. And the crazy thing is that we can actually change the composition of intestinal bacteria. We cannot change the genes – at least not for a long time to come. If we know why viruses and intestinal bacteria are a good match, it will be a lot easier for us to change something that actually affects our health.”
Diversify your longevity organ
If you want a gut full of diverse bacteria, a great way to start is by diversifying your diet.
A couple of years ago, researchers at Stanford School of Medicine found that a 10-week diet high in fermented foods boosted microbiome diversity and improved immune responses. According to those researchers, their findings are an example of how a simple diet change can remodel the microbiota.
Fermented foods are “foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components.”
Traditional Japanese cuisine focuses heavily on fermented foods like fermented bean paste (natto), tempeh, soy sauce, miso, rice vinegar and pickled vegetables. In fact, some type of fermented food is included at almost every meal.
Could this be the link to their longevity? Fermented foods are considered superfoods, so it certainly makes sense.
According to Tim Spector, an author and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, “The Japanese love of many fermented soy products could be one reason that they have much better health than in the west, [and] stay slimmer despite eating lots of rice and other high carbohydrate food.”
If traditional Japanese fermented foods aren’t easily available to you, try adding Kombucha tea, kefir, yogurt and cottage cheese to your diet.
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Why do some people live to be a 100? Intestinal bacteria may hold the answer — University of Copenhagen Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences
More people are living to be 100: Here’s why — The Hill
New Global Definition for Fermented Foods — The Fermentation Society