We’d all like to live a long time in good health.
Now a recently published study has concluded there are lifestyle factors that can increase your odds of reaching an older age without chronic health issues.
There’s been plenty of research on lifestyle choices, such as smoking, physical activity, drinking habits, weight management, and diet, that affect our overall life span and likelihood of experiencing chronic diseases.
However, few studies have looked at how a combination of these factors relate to a long life free of disease.
- Researchers say healthy lifestyle habits can add as much as a decade to your life span.
- The researchers identified five lifestyle factors as important, including diet, exercise, and maintaining a moderate body weight.
- Experts say the two most important things to avoid are smoking and developing overweight or obesity.
“We wanted to see whether following a healthy diet and exercise can prolong life, not just life expectancy but life expectancy free of chronic diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes,” Dr. Frank Hu, MPH, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts and lead study author, told Healthline.
“Because we’re not just looking at life span but also health span, meaning that there are increased years of life free of chronic disease,” he said.
5 crucial health factors
Researchers examined data from roughly 73,000 registered female nurses in the United States from the Nurses’ Health Study and from almost 40,000 male health professionals in the United States from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.
The study participants didn’t have cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes when they were enrolled.
Study participants were routinely assessed for new diagnoses and deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes for more than 20 years. Researchers adjusted for age, ethnic background, family medical history, and other considerations.
The low-risk lifestyle factors used to calculate a healthy lifestyle score included:
- never smoking
- at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity
- moderate alcohol intake
- maintaining a moderate weight (defined as a BMI less than 25)
- a good quality diet
Adding these five factors together gave a final low-risk lifestyle score ranging from 0 to 5. A higher score indicated a healthier lifestyle.
“Your healthcare provider can help with risk scores that can estimate your risk for death for certain conditions, and evidence-based lifestyle modifications and treatments that can improve conditions,” said Dr. Katrina Miller Parrish, the chief quality and information executive at L.A. Care Health Plan.
“Keep in mind that a healthy lifestyle with low impact, tolerable physical exercise; a good, well-balanced, colorful diet; hydration; and an appropriate amount of sleep can do wonders to help maintain a positive mental outlook and physical state,” Parrish told Healthline.
Increasing your healthy life span
Years of life free from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes at age 50 was 24 years for women who followed none of the low-risk lifestyle factors.
It was 34 years for women who adopted four or five of the factors.
The life expectancy free of these chronic diseases was 24 years among 50-year-old men who followed no low-risk lifestyle factors.
It was 31 years for men who practiced four or five of these healthy habits.
“While hypertension is the number one cause for death throughout the world, many lifestyle changes, such as better diet and exercise, can affect this diagnosis to varying degrees, especially based on regimen and adherence,” Parrish said.
Diet is key
Being selective in what you eat is one of the most important lifestyle factors.
“Foods that are high in fiber have been studied extensively for the benefits that they provide when it comes to cardiovascular health, including blood pressure regulation,” Shelley Wood, MPH, RDN, a clinician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, told Healthline.
Wood explains these foods are plant-based and include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Additionally, legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas, have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol level, and high blood pressure.
For those wishing to preserve heart function and health, Wood says they’d benefit from avoiding foods high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates.
“It’s especially important to avoid these foods if you have high cholesterol. If you’re contemplating eating a food that is high in sugar, salt, or fat, your best bet is to choose something else,” she said.
Wood adds that optimizing caloric intake and reaching or maintaining a moderate weight and waist measurement into middle age are “the single most important ways to reduce risk for diabetes as well as participating in regular physical activity and avoiding smoking.”
Smoking, obesity effects
According to the study, men who smoked heavily — defined as 15 or more cigarettes per day — and men and women with obesity (defined as BMI 30 or higher) had the lowest chance of disease-free life expectancy at age 50.
“We looked at five lifestyle factors: eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, not drinking in excess, not smoking, and being physically active. They’re all important. But for smokers, the most important thing for them to do, of course, is to stop smoking. For people who are obese, it’s important to lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight,” Hu said.
Parrish agrees that not smoking is critically important.
“The one single thing anyone who smokes can do is simply quit and reduce risk of disease and death by double digits, which is seen through this study. The effect appears to be greater the longer an ‘ever-smoker’ remains no longer smoking,” Parrish said.
“In the first 1 to 10 years after quitting, the risk of heart disease and lung cancer drops, and by 15 years, the risk of each is near that of a nonsmoker,” she added.
The bottom line
New research finds there are five lifestyle factors that significantly increase the years you live without experiencing chronic health issues.
Study participants were followed for more than 20 years. Those who followed four or five of the healthy lifestyle choices significantly increased their healthy life span after age 50.
Experts emphasize that the most influential of these are not smoking and maintaining a moderate body weight.