If Living Healthy is so Important to Longevity, Why Do Some Unhealthy People Live so Long?

Did you know that people who live to be 95 are just as likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices as anyone else? At least that’s what one study from the Yeshiva Institute for Aging found. Smoking, drinking, failing to exercise, eating processed foods—some people do these things all their lives and somehow still manage to outlive their healthier peers. Likewise, some people who make all the right choices (eating Paleo, exercising, wearing sunscreen etc.) are sometimes the ones who get the sickest. 

People who do end up living to 95+ are a rarity (~ .01% of the population). But several studies have shown this to group to smoke, drink, and lead sedentary life-styles just as much, or, in some cases, even more than the general population. At first, this might seem absolutely baffling. You might be wondering: is all my work to stay healthy done in vain if people who do just the opposite outlive me?

The answer is: of course not. The real story behind these long-lived, yet unhealthy people is luck—more specifically, the luck of winning the genetic lottery. Oftentimes, people who live to be very old simply have longevity encoded within their genes. They might interact with environmental factors differently than others. Their good genes work to counteract the effects of bad behavior and bad habits. Some genes not only slow down cellular aging, but also provide an anti-aging effect—giving some people a huge advantage when it comes to living a long, if unhealthy, life.

Now you might be wondering, how do I know if I’m one of these people? Well, you can’t—that is, until you actually live to be very old. In other words, only time will tell if you made out with the genetic winnings—and the odds aren’t in your favor. For 99.9% of us, life-style choices matter a great deal. While a small segment of the population might seem to defy the idea that how we live our lives dictates how old we live to be, the fact is, these people are the exception to the rule; they’re going to live a long time no matter what. The rest of us actually do have control over how long we do or don’t live; which is really a good thing if you think about it.

But we don’t always have complete control. On the other side of the spectrum, you could practice healthy habits your whole life and still fall victim to disease, particularly cancer. My wife is one of these people. In spite of exercising, eating healthy, and controlling for environmental toxins, she became a victim of breast cancer four years ago. A study from Johns Hopkins found that most incidences of cancer are caused not by unhealthy lifestyles, but by plain old bad luck—as is my wife’s case. Again the question arises: is all your work towards staying healthy done in vain?

The answer, again, is: of course not! The study found 22 cancers that were tied to random gene mutations—but nine others, including skin cancer, colorectal, and lung cancer, were proven to be tied to environmental and life-style factors. Breast cancer was not evaluated in the study.

The moral of the story is that some cancers (particularly some of the most common forms) leave more room than others for taking measures of prevention. I.e., what you choose to eat and put on your skin does affect your risk of developing some forms of cancer. Additionally, several studies have shown that healthy living tends to turn off cancer-promoting genes and turn on cancer-suppressing genes—more evidence that making healthy choices does affect our risk of developing cancer.

At the end of the day, the work you do to stay healthy matters. A combination of conventional medicine and holistic health almost certainly has a meaningful effect on how old we live to be. And even if you do happen to be one of those people who will live to be 100 no matter what, or one of those people who unfairly falls victim to disease, living healthy will, at the very least, improve the quality of however many years you do live—whether that’s 45, 75, or 100+.