Everyone wants to live longer, but we may not necessarily be doing what we should to ensure a long and healthy life. Now a new study out of Harvard University suggests that if American adults adopt five key healthy habits in their day-to-day lives, they can increase their life expectancy by more than a decade.
The good news: These habits aren’t part of some unreachable fountain of youth, but are instead simple changes in behavior. They are:
-Eat a healthy diet.
-Do moderate-to-vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
-Maintain a healthy body weight.
-Consume alcohol in moderation.
According to the research, published April 2018 in the journal Circulation, these five things could prolong your life expectancy at age 50 by just over 14 years for women and just over 12 years for men.
“The general population just needs to adopt a small step forward toward a healthier lifestyle,” says the lead researcher, Yanping Li, MD, PhD, a scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, adding that results indicated that it is never too late to put healthy habits into action.
Dr. Li says that even “modest improvement” in one’s behavior could have a “big impact” in the long term. These lifestyle changes could help in the prevention of heart disease and premature mortality in people who have heart disease, he adds.
To get their results, Li and his team analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Both are large-scale, ongoing studies looking at a combined total of 123,219 Americans. The researchers compiled this data with information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see how lifestyle factors, like exercise and diet, affected life expectancy over time in the United States.
Over the course of a 34-year follow-up period, 42,167 deaths were recorded, with 13,953 of them the result of cancer. An additional 10,689 were due to heart disease.
Li’s team found that people who stuck with all five lifestyle recommendations were a whopping 74 percent less likely to die during the follow-up period. Within that overall group, 82 percent were less likely to die from heart disease, while 65 percent were less likely to die from cancer after adopting the behaviors.
Li adds that the findings show a “large space of potential improvement of the life expectancy of Americans” if these changes are made.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Even though they live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a high quality of life, Americans have a shorter life expectancy compared with other high-income nations like Canada or Japan, according to the American Heart Association. Heart disease and stroke play a major role in premature deaths in the United States, with 2,300 people dying from heart disease each day — that’s one death every 38 seconds.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States ranks 31st in life expectancy worldwide.
Marc Gillinov, MD, the chair of the department of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Cleveland Clinic, says that when it comes to heart disease, the number-one killer in the U.S., “90 percent of the risk” is created by “lifestyle habits and choices.”
“The other 10 percent is genes, age, and gender,” says Dr. Gillinov, who was not affiliated with the study. “What that means is that only a small minority of us are genetically determined to get coronary heart disease” in a way that cannot be mitigated by healthy choices.
Gillinov says that a big problem for Americans is an emphasis on unhealthy behaviors that are ingrained in our culture. From an evolutionary perspective, he says that we are “supposed to be active, we are supposed to eat healthy, fresh, ‘whole’ foods, not a ‘number four’ from a fast food restaurant menu.”
“We’ve found that increased awareness has been ineffective in reducing the prevalence and incidence of diseases. We have much better treatments and far better preventions, but we still haven’t moved very far in decreasing the presence of these diseases. It’s going to require more of a public and private policy partnership to make changes, since it doesn’t seem like people are going to do it on their own,” he adds.
Moving forward, Li says he would like to look at what life expectancy would be like for people with and without chronic diseases. He says that as people start living longer at the same time that chronic conditions become more prevalent in society, you have the phenomenon of people “living longer, but also living with sickness.” He says the next step would be to see what life expectancy is like coupled with a healthy lifestyle both with and without a chronic condition.
On his end, Gillinov stresses that it’s important for us to know that we all hold the keys to longevity.
“The big takeaway is that each one of us can modify our risk of coronary heart disease or having a heart attack or suffering a stroke,” he adds. “It’s almost completely in your control to make healthy lifestyle changes, to take charge.”