A new study examining three decades of data has found that men and women following five lifestyle habits can add more than a decade of life expectancy. The habits aren’t new: eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, keeping a healthy body weight, not drinking too much alcohol, and not smoking. But according to this study, the first comprehensive analysis of its kind in the U.S., they also aren’t very well followed.
“This study underscores the importance of following healthy lifestyle habits for improving longevity in the U.S. population,” said senior study author Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School. “However, adherence to healthy lifestyle habits is very low.”
The study examined 34 years of data from 78,865 women and 27 years of data from 44,354 men pulled from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. The researchers report that for participants not following any of the five habits, life expectancy at age 50 was 29 years for women and 25.5 years for men. For those adopting all five habits, life expectancy at 50 was projected to be a little over 43 years for women and 37 years for men.
Mortality from both cardiovascular disease and cancer was greatly reduced for those maintaining the five habits: 82% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 65% less likely to die from cancer, compared to participants least likely to follow the habits.
The researchers also report that they found a “dose-response relationship” between each lifestyle habit and reduced risk of early mortality – for each habit followed, the chance of dying early was decreased, with the greatest decrease coming from following all five habits.
The study has a couple of limitations worth noting. The first is that the results are based on observational data and therefore can’t be considered evidence of a cause and effect relationship. The outcomes are strictly a matter of correlation. Another is that part of the analyzed data came from people self-reporting their behaviors (for example, whether or not they smoked or had smoked at some point in their lives, and how much alcohol they consumed on average). As with all self-reported data, there’s likely some play in the numbers because people tend to under-report behaviors perceived as negative, and even with the best intentions it’s hard to be entirely accurate when estimating the level of any behavior over time.
The definition of “exercising regularly” for the study was at least 30 minutes or more per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. The definition of “not drinking too much” was drinking up to one 5-ounce glass of wine per day for women, or up to two glasses for men. Healthy body weight was defined as staying within the healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) range.
Unfortunately, a hefty percentage of those living in the U.S. aren’t following the five habits, so we need a public policy push to nudge us closer, according to the researchers.
“Public policies should put more emphasis on creating healthy food, built, and social environments to support and promote healthy diet and lifestyles,” added Hu in a press statement.