Longevity is the number of years the average person will live. Studies and statistics show that in the United States the average person lives to be 79 years old. What was also shown by the studies were activities that would help you live longer than average. Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a massive study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy. This means that they had data on a huge number of people over a very long period of time. The study included over 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men. The researchers looked at data on diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption that had been collected from regularly administered, validated questionnaires.
What is a healthy lifestyle, exactly?
These five areas were chosen because prior studies have shown them to have a large impact on the risk of premature death. Here is how these healthy habits were defined and measured:
1. Healthy diet, which was calculated and rated based on the reported intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.
2. Healthy physical activity level, which was measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
3. Healthy body weight, defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), which is between 18.5 and 24.9.
4. Smoking, well, there is no healthy amount of smoking. “Healthy” here meant never having smoked.
5. Moderate alcohol intake, which was measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Researchers also looked at data on age, ethnicity, and medication use, as well as comparison data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research.
Does a healthy lifestyle make a difference?
As it turns out, healthy habits make a big difference. According to this analysis, people who met criteria for all five habits enjoyed significantly, impressively longer lives than those who had none: 14 years for women and 12 years for men (if they had these habits at age 50). People who had none of these habits were far more likely to die prematurely from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Study investigators also calculated life expectancy by how many of these five healthy habits people had. Just one healthy habit (and it didn’t matter which one) … just one… extended life expectancy by two years in men and women. Not surprisingly, the more healthy habits people had, the longer their lifespan.
So What’s the Problem?
As the authors of this study point out, in the US we tend to spend outlandishly on developing fancy drugs and other treatments for diseases, rather than on trying to prevent them. This is a big problem.
Experts have suggested that the best way to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle change is at the large-scale, population level, through public health efforts and policy changes. (Kind of like motorcycle helmets and seat belt legislation.) Just pick one thing to change and you can extend your life, pick more than one and who knows what will happen!