The five healthy habits are unlikely to be much of a surprise to anybody:
- following a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar;
- exercising at least 30 minutes a day;
- having a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 25;
- not smoking; and
- not drinking too much alcohol (no more than 14 glasses of beer or wine per week for men and no more than about seven for women, although recent research has suggested that even those amounts are harmful to health).
What is likely to surprise many people, however, is the size of the impact those healthy habits can have on life expectancy. The study found that adhering to all five habits prolonged life expectancy at age 50 by an average of 14 years for women and by an average of 12.2 years for men.
“Americans could narrow the life-expectancy gap between the United States and other industrialized countries by adopting a healthier lifestyle,” the study’s authors conclude.
“Prevention should be a top priority for national health policy, and preventive care should be an indispensable part of the US healthcare system,” they add.
As background information in the study points out, although the United States spends more per person on health care than any nation in the world, it has a shorter life expectancy — 79.3 years — than almost every other high-income country. (We were ranked 31st for life expectancy at birth in 2015.)
Part of the reason for that, the study explains, is that the U.S. tends to focus its health care dollars on drug development and disease treatment rather than on prevention.
For the study, researchers analyzed health and lifestyle data collected from about 123,000 American participants in two large, ongoing studies, the Nurses’ Health Study (which included only women) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (which included only men).
The women were followed for 34 years and the men for 27. All deaths among the participants were recorded. The researchers used that data to determine if the people with healthy habits lived longer than those without them — and, if so, by how many years.
The study found that men who maintained all five healthy habits saw their life expectancy at age 50 rise from 25.5 to 37.6 years (from age 75 to age 87) — 12 years longer than their male peers who adopted none of the habits.
The benefit was even greater for women. Those who adhered to all five habits saw their life expectancy at age 50 increase from 29 to 43.1 years (from age 79 to age 93) — an extra 14 years.
Compared to those who didn’t follow any of the healthy habits, those who adhered to all five were 74 percent less likely to die during the period of the study.
Not many adherents
Unfortunately, however, less than 2 percent of the people in the study had all five healthy habits, and a third had two or fewer.
Still, having some of the healthy habits was better than having none. For example, while women at age 50 with five healthy habits could expect to live (on average) to around 93, those with four healthy habits could expect to live to 89, those with three to age 87, and those with two to age 84.
“This study underscores the importance of following healthy lifestyle habits for improving longevity in the U.S. population,” said Frank Hu, the study’s senior author and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University, in a released statement. “However, adherence to healthy lifestyle habits is very low. Therefore, public policies should put more emphasis on creating healthy food … and social environments to support and promote healthy diet and lifestyles.”
FMI:You can read the study in full on the website for Circulation, which is published by the American Heart Association.