If you think eating well and getting plenty of exercise are the only ways to prolong your life, think again. Scientists have been finding that a whole range of behaviours can affect your longevity. Not all are as obvious as you think. Here are some of the quirkier ways to live a longer life – and the science behind them.
BECOME A VOLUNTEER
Giving up your time to help others may be as much – if not more – beneficial to you as to them. Researchers at the Exeter Medical School in England have found volunteers are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives and have a greater sense of well-being.
Initial findings also showed volunteers were 20pc less likely to die prematurely than those who had never volunteered.
Exactly why is still unclear, but Dick Sweetman (inset) doesn't need any scientific proof to convince him of the benefits.
The 68-year-old Dubliner and his wife Colette (65) have been volunteering with the Special Olympics for more than 10 years.
"I took early retirement in 2003," explains Dick. "The world games were coming up, and Colette and I decided to get involved. It was such a great experience we kept it up."
Dick and Colette work one day a week doing a wide variety of duties. "Colette can be putting ribbons on medals or recruiting volunteers for various events. She also mentors two athletes," says Dick.
"I could be ringing up people for reference checks, or putting together whatever we need for collection days.
"I feel the respect is the biggest thing of all for me," adds Dick. "The Special Olympics really respect the time you put in.
"We're always meeting new people and making friends. We work with a lot of younger people and really enjoy that. They keep you young," he says.
"We get more out of it than anyone else," he insists. "We've been to four world games now, so we've seen the world. It keeps us active," says Dick.
OWN A DOG
Dog lovers have insisted for a long time that their hobby is healthy – and now science is backing up their claims. A study by Queens University Belfast found that owning a dog makes you more active and more social, leading to better physical and psychological health.
A study in China found dog owners made up to 15pc fewer trips to their doctor every year, and German pet owners spent on average 32 fewer nights in hospital a year than their petless counterparts.
The benefits seem most pronounced for the older generation. Several surveys show dog owners are less stressed and lonely, eat better and have a greater sense of purpose in life.
Helen Williams from Longford couldn't agree more. The retired nurse and her husband Dave lived in the UK for many years. When they moved home, they brought their dogs with them, but couldn't face replacing them when they died. They soon reconsidered.
"We really missed having a dog around the place," says Helen. "We volunteered to walk dogs for the ISPCA in Kenagh and eventually they asked us to consider fostering Chico.
"Dogs get you out and about, talking to people and doing things. If it wasn't for Chico, I might just be sitting in the house and it would be so much quieter," says Helen.
Her activity levels have soared. "I suffer from asthma, and in the past that might have put me off walking. But now I have no choice but to walk Chico twice a day."
Helen's not surprised studies have found pets have an impact on mental health.
"Having a dog would definitely improve your mood," she adds.
"He has us laughing at silly things. He's companionship for us as well."
Yoga has proven beneficial for everything from chronic pain to asthma. Now there's evidence that regularly contorting yourself into strange shapes could lengthen your life.
A separate study in California also found that yoga could even reverse the ageing process.
Greg Walsh, who teaches yoga at the Samadhi Yoga Studios in Dublin and Drogheda, says: "Regular yoga into old age keeps the practitioner agile and mobile, giving quality of life right into autumn years."
As well as lengthening your life, he says there's overwhelming evidence of other benefits.
"Many clinical studies have proven that yoga helps with stress, anxiety, depression, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, arthritis and more," he says. "While these diseases are not fatal, they reduce the quality of life.
"Regular yoga practitioners are less likely to smoke or binge-drink alcohol," he continues. "Among other things, the good feeling you get when practising yoga regularly is addictive. Feeling healthy is addictive.
"I firmly believe that every time you practise yoga, it puts a few coins in the bank of health, well-being and longevity. You can't argue with the evidence."
FLOSS YOUR TEETH
It's weird but true – flossing your teeth could be one of the cheapest and quickest ways of adding years to your life. Studies in America suggest that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from heart disease as those with healthy mouths.
It seems that not flossing can lead to a build-up of bacteria in your mouth, which can find its way into your arteries and cause plaques. It's also possible your body will mount a defence to the bacteria in your mouth, causing inflammation, which may in turn cause your arteries to narrow.
But Dublin-based dentist Dr Nuala Carney cautions against getting too carried away.
"There is a link, but scientists are not saying it's a causative link," she says.
"In other words, they're not saying if you have gum disease, you're going to get heart disease.
"But we do know if someone has heart disease and also has untreated gum problems, then they could have a high level of bacteria in their mouths that might affect their hearts.
"Can we say for definite that looking after your gums will prolong your life? No," Nuala says.
"But it is a fact that a large number of people who have heart disease also have gum disease. We're still not sure why.
"It's so important to look after your teeth," she says.
"It's a quality-of-life issue. When someone doesn't have enough teeth to eat properly, then their nutrition suffers. It's a real problem in some older patients.
"I would tell my patients to only floss the teeth they want to keep!" she laughs.