What are the secrets to a long and healthy life? Most people realize that to achieve a healthy old age, you need to exercise regularly, maintain a reasonable weight, get enough sleep and manage stress.
But you can now add something much more surprising to that list: getting infected by the right viruses.
At least that was the conclusion of a recent survey of centenarians from Japan and Sardinia.
The Japanese are famed for their longevity, while the small Italian island of Sardinia claims to have one of the highest percentages of people living to 100 years or more.
The assumption has always been that this mainly has to do with diet and lifestyle, but it now seems that harboring the right viruses in your gut can also make a difference.
The assumption has always been that this mainly has to do with diet and lifestyle, but it now seems that harboring the right viruses in your gut can also make a difference
Would you use ‘safe’ asbestos?
One of the unfortunate things about some of the new discoveries is that their serious side effects don’t come to light until they’re widely used.
Take asbestos. Once thought of as a brilliant new building material – cheap, strong, fire-resistant, great for insulating buildings and wonderfully sound-absorbing. It was even used in mattresses and children’s toys, such as modeling clay.
We now know that if you inhale asbestos fibers, it can lead to mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer, which may not appear until years later.
But one good thing to say about science is that while it can cause serious problems, it also offers solutions.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in the US have identified a species of bacteria that lives in the deep ocean and is good at removing iron from asbestos, making it less toxic.
This could make asbestos removal easier – and could even mean reusing asbestos, but in a ‘safer’ form. But whether anyone would trust asbestos again is another question.
In a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature Microbiology, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in the US studied fecal samples collected from nearly 200 centenarians from these two areas.
The scientists used these to analyze the participants’ gut microbiomes — the community of trillions of microbes that live in our guts and have profound effects on our health — for clues to their longevity.
What they found was that the centenarians, compared to people in their 60s, had both a wider range of “good” bacteria — and more “good” viruses, too.
You may be surprised to learn that there are plenty of viruses and fungi living in our guts, in addition to the bacteria we’ve all been reading about so much lately.
While we normally think of viruses as bad for us – and they do cause a range of nasty illnesses – most do no harm and some seem to be beneficial.
Viruses are small, about 100 times smaller than bacteria and difficult to study partly because of their size. Therefore, those that live in our guts have so far received much less attention than larger, more prominent bacteria.
What do the viruses in the guts of centenarians do, you may ask, that keep them healthy?
At least some viruses attack and kill “bad” bacteria, the type that can cause inflammation and nasty intestinal infections.
These specific viruses, known as bacteriophages, are common and increasingly used in medical settings as an alternative to antibiotics, especially when it comes to treating resistant skin and intestinal infections.
That’s because, unlike antibiotics, bacteria don’t seem to be able to develop resistance to bacteriophages.
The researchers think that some viruses in the guts of centenarians not only kill harmful microbes, but are also good at creating the gas hydrogen sulfide.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a good thing, because hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and is one of the reasons why some people produce such noxious fumes when they break wind.
But surprisingly, even though hydrogen sulfide smells awful in the open, it has many potential benefits when generated in the gut. One of the most important is that it helps maintain the lining of your gut, a barrier of tightly packed cells that lets your body absorb nutrients but also prevents bacteria and toxins from escaping into your blood.
And when the bad stuff gets out, it can lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn is one of the leading causes of age-related diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
Hydrogen sulfide also has its own direct, powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which could explain why studies have shown it plays an important role in maintaining the health of our brain, heart, liver and other organs.
In small doses, hydrogen sulfide has also been shown to improve the efficiency of mitochondria, the “batteries” in our cells, which in turn suggests it contributes to improved energy and cell health.
The thinking is that stool samples from centenarians could one day be used to culture the beneficial viruses — which would then be given to people who aren’t aging very well, either as a pill or as a stool transplant.
If you don’t feel like it, it’s best to do the kinds of things that have already been shown to benefit your overall health, as well as that of your microbiome.
This means eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich legumes, including plenty of sulfur-rich vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and radishes, which will boost your internal production of hydrogen sulfide.
Another great way to cultivate your good gut microbes is gardening, as it puts you in closer contact with soil, which is rich in insects. This could be one of the reasons, besides exercise and spending time outdoors, why gardeners live longer. Spending more time with your loved ones is another proven way to help you reach old age.
A study of 117 people, published in Nature in 2019, found that those who were happily married or had many close friends had a richer, more diverse microbiome than those who lived alone or were socially isolated.
So it seems that keeping close contact with friends is also a good way to keep your microbial friends, be they bacteria or viruses, happy.
I dislike the sound of traffic so much that many years ago I persuaded my wife, Clare, to move to a quiet, leafy lane.
Even now, I take earplugs and noise-canceling headphones with me when I travel.
Clare thinks I’m overly sensitive, so I was pleased to show her the results of a recent Swedish study that found people play with the sound of traffic, even at a volume of just 40dB (similar to talking quietly in a library). ). greatly affects their ability to concentrate and get work done.
Why faking a smile is good for your marriage
Social isolation and wearing a mask during the pandemic means some of us may have left behind the habit of smiling.
At least that seems to be true for Japan, where there has been an explosion of classes lately to teach people how to do it.
While I wouldn’t want to spend time and money on this, there is a surprising amount of evidence for the beneficial influence of a smile.
In a 2001 University of California study, researchers analyzed photos of women in their 20s and found that decades later, those who smiled most naturally were happier and much more likely to be married and stay happily married than those who didn’t. ‘T.
This may be because “smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a higher likelihood of a long-lasting marriage,” the researchers said.
Social isolation and wearing a mask during the pandemic means some of us may have abandoned the habit of smiling
But if you don’t feel like smiling, faking it in some way can be helpful. New research in the journal Human Behavior involving more than 3,800 people found that mimicking the smiling faces of actors in photographs made people feel happier — as did turning the corners of their mouths up using facial muscles .
But the “pen-in-mouth” technique—where you grab a pen between your teeth to make your facial muscles curl up in the shape of a simulated smile—didn’t make much of a difference.
So why would faking a smile make you feel happier? One theory is that it stimulates the amygdala — your brain’s emotional center — to release chemicals that make us feel happier.
Whatever the explanation, there seems to be some truth to that old adage, “Smile and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.”