How would you like to add seven to 10 healthy, disease-free years to your life as you age?
Try eliminating these five bad health habits: smoking, not exercising, being overweight, drinking too much alcohol and eating an unhealthy diet.
That’s the takeaway from a new study that analyzed the impact of those behaviors on the chance of living a longer life free of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.
“We found that following a healthy lifestyle can substantially extend the years a person lives disease-free,” said senior author Dr. Frank Hu, who chairs the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“In particular, women who practiced all five habits gained over 10 years of disease-free life, and men who did so gained almost eight years,” Hu said.
The research is an extension of a study published last year that followed more than 38,000 men for 28 years and 73,000 women for 34 years.
That research found women who adopted all five healthy habits at age 50 lived 14 years longer than women who did not; men who were following all five lifestyle factors at age 50 lived 12 years longer than men who followed none.
This new study, published Wednesday in the journal BMJ, examined the same data to see how chronic disease affected the quality of life during the study period.
The research was designed to see how five healthy behaviors interacted to affect disease risk: never smoking, keeping a healthy BMI below 25, doing at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, drinking alcohol moderately and eating a good quality diet.
Women who practiced four or five of the healthy habits over the next 20 to 30 years, Hu said, had an additional 10.6 years of disease-free living compared to women who adopted no lifestyle changes. When broken down by disease, the healthier women gained an average of eight years free of cancer, 10 years with no cardiovascular disease and 12 years without diabetes.
Men who practiced four to five healthy behaviors gained 7.6 years’ longer life expectancy; an average of six more years without cancer, almost nine more years free of heart issues and over 10 years without diabetes.
The results held true even after adjusting the data for age, ethnicity, family medical history and other potentially influential factors,
Not surprisingly, men who were heavy smokers – defined as 15 or more cigarettes a day – or obese men and women with a BMI of 30 or more had fewer years without disease.
What happened if a person was diagnosed with a disease during the study? The data showed half of people diagnosed with cancer lived an additional 23 years if they adopted four of five healthy practices. Among those who didn’t change, half only survived an additional 11 years. The same patterns were seen for both heart disease and diabetes.
“This is a positive health message because it means healthy lifestyle habits not only prolong life, but also improve the quality of life and reduce sufferings related to chronic diseases,” Hu said.
The study had some limitations, including that the data on adherence to the five lifestyle factors were all self-reported, making an outcome vulnerable to measurement errors.
What if you’ve not eliminated these five bad habits from your life?
“it is never too late to adopt these habits,” Hu said. “For smokers, the single most important thing that one should do is to stop smoking. For nonsmokers, eating a healthy diet and being physically active are important for keeping a healthy weight.”