Want to live a longer, healthier life? New research sheds light on the lifestyle factors that matter.

A man and woman sit on foam mats and smile at each other, touching their toes, surrounded by grass and trees with sunlight streaming in from behind.
New research sheds light on healthy habits that support longevity. (Getty Images)

Longevity is the goal for many people, but the secret to living a longer, healthier life isn’t always obvious. Life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 77.5 years for men and women, although plenty of people live much longer than that.

Now, new research is breaking down the common traits of people who live to be 100 or older, aka centenarians. For the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, researchers analyzed data from 5,222 people who participated in the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey, targeting one of the largest groups of people who are aged 80 and up.

Each study participant was given a healthy lifestyle score that looked into factors like smoking history, exercise and diet, with higher scores out of 100 suggesting that someone would likely have better health outcomes. After five years, the researchers found that people with the highest healthy lifestyle scores were 61% more likely to live to age 100 or more compared to those with the lowest scores. But there were also other factors that indicated someone was more likely to become a centenarian.

While people have studied longevity before, this study focused on what study co-author Dr. Xiang Gao, dean of the Institute of Nutrition at Fudan University, calls the “oldest old population,” or people 80 and up.

“Aging is related to a wide spectrum of chronic diseases, and the growing aging population has raised up new challenges for the health care system,” Gao tells Yahoo Life. Gao says his study aims “to provide new insights into promoting healthy aging and longevity.”

So, what are the factors that increase your likelihood of hitting 100 one day, and why are they helpful? Here’s what the research found — and what doctors think.

There were a few major factors that emerged as helping participants in this study live to 100 and older. Never smoking was linked with a 25% higher likelihood of reaching 100, while exercising regularly raised the odds by 31%. Those who ate a diverse diet also had a 23% greater likelihood of living to 100 or older.

Research published last year in the journal Nutrients also found that following a healthy diet, avoiding smoking and being active was linked to a longer life.

“This adds to an increasing amount of information that lifestyle factors are very important in health outcomes,” Dr. James Powers, professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s promising that we can take charge of our health.”

It’s important to note that the study focused on older adults, providing specific advice for people in this age group. “This shows these healthy lifestyle factors still matter. They always matter,” Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “It's never too early and it's never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle. It's always important.”

The study did not find a link between alcohol use and living to 100, although when the researchers refined their criteria, they found that those who drank moderate amounts of alcohol had a slightly greater chance of living longer. (Moderate alcohol consumption translates to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks or less per day for men, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.)

“Some alcohol intake doesn't appear to be detrimental,” Powers says. But he also notes that this is an area that the medical field is still trying to figure out. “Some alcohol may be good for health, but what’s the limit?” he says.

Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, a geriatrician at Northwell Health and co-author of The Aging Revolution, tells Yahoo Life that the findings aren’t shocking but help reinforce the importance of healthy lifestyle. “A good portion of our life expectancy is behavior-related,” she says. “Longevity and life expectancy is due to lifestyle, genetics and injuries that we have been exposed to.”

Health care has “made incredible progress in the last 100 years, and we think we can push it further with a healthy lifestyle,” Carney says.

Eating a diverse diet “increases the likelihood that individuals are consuming a wide range of nutrients essential to keep their bodies functioning optimally, which contributes to longevity,” says Dr. Sara Leonard, a family medicine physician and geriatrician at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Exercise has many benefits in the elderly including cardiovascular health, memory and cognition, maintaining strength and muscle mass, decreasing the risk of falls, decreasing depression and anxiety and allowing greater independence with daily activities,” Leonard says. All of these are important for living longer, she adds.

Smoking is linked with several types of cancer, along with chronic medical conditions, Leonard points out. “A person who has never smoked has a lower risk of getting the types of diseases that would likely prevent them from living to 100,” she says.

Powers says that there are “meaningful differences” in the health of people who follow a healthy lifestyle and those who don’t. “That means more time to spend with family, a longer life and more independence,” he says. “Those are very big factors for many people. It’s fewer sick days and a higher quality of life.”

But doctors agree that more research needs to be done around alcohol and living a healthy life. “I have met centenarians who have told me the secret to a long life is to have a drink every night and other centenarians who said they never drank a drop of alcohol,” Leonard says. “As a geriatrician, I believe that an occasional drink is generally OK for those who have not been advised by a physician to abstain, and probably doesn’t affect longevity, but moderation is key.”

Carney agrees. “My guidance with alcohol is moderation,” she says. “Beyond that, it can start causing harm to the liver [and] skin and have cardiac effects.”

Doctors point out that this is one study and it's not the final word in healthy aging. However, they agree that it lines up with what most people in the medical community recommend for healthy aging.

“I hope that people will see these findings as additional evidence that making beneficial lifestyle choices related to diet, exercise and tobacco use really can make a difference in giving them as many healthy days as possible as they age,” Leonard says.

Kaiser stresses that “there are no guarantees, and there certainly are those outliers who smoke every day, sit around and live to 100, but you definitely improve the odds of having a long life by following the healthy lifestyle principles.”