Habits to extend life by years, according to study

Want to live even more until you’re 24? Just adding eight healthy lifestyle choices to your life when you turn 40 could make it happen, according to a new, unpublished study analyzing data from U.S. veterans.

Should I start at age 50 instead? No problem. Studies have shown that it can extend lifespan by up to 21 years. 60 years old? Adopting all eight healthy habits will add nearly 18 years to your life.

“Whether you do it in stages or all at once, you have 20 years to make these changes,” says study lead author Xuan May Nguyen, a health science expert with the VA Boston Health Care System’s Million Veterans Program.

“We also did an analysis to see if we excluded patients with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, cancer, etc. Would the results change? And really not,” she said. “So, even if it starts with a chronic disease, making a change works.”

What are magical health habits? Never heard before. Exercise, eat healthy, reduce stress, sleep well, and develop positive social relationships. Conversely, don’t smoke, drink too much, or become addicted to opioids.

“The sooner the better, but even if you make a few small changes in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, it’s still beneficial,” says Nguyen. “This is not out of reach. In fact, for ordinary people, this is achievable.”

Lifestyle habits are built upon each other

The study, presented Monday at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Nutrition, looked at the lifestyle behaviors of nearly 720,000 veterans between the ages of 40 and 99. These were all part of the Million Veterans Program, a longitudinal study aimed at examining the health status of US veterans.

Adding just one healthy behavior to a 40-year-old man’s life added an additional 4.5 years, Nguyen said. Adding a second person added another 7 years, and adopting the three habits added 8.6 years to men’s lives. Men’s gains increased as lifestyle changes increased, resulting in a combined increase in life expectancy of nearly a quarter of a century.

Nguyen said women’s life expectancy has increased significantly as well, but the numbers add up differently than men’s. Adopting just one healthy behavior added a woman’s life expectancy by 3.5 years, two added 8 years to her, three added 12.6 years to her, and adopting all healthy habits added a woman’s life 22.6 years.

“Doing all eight is synergistic, like an extra boost to extend lifespan, but any small change made a difference,” Nguyen said.

After adjusting for age, BMI, gender, race and ethnicity, marital status, education level, and family income level, the study found “those who adopted all eight lifestyle factors had a relative 87 percent reduction in all-cause mortality compared to those who adopted none,” Nguyen said.

“A key strength of this analysis is that the population was highly diverse by race, ethnicity and SES[socioeconomic status],” said Walter Willett, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a leading nutrition researcher, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and professor at Harvard Medical School.

Because the study only shows associations, not direct causation, and because it focuses on veterans, the findings may not apply to all Americans. But the veterans surveyed were “retired, not on active duty and not participating in military training,” Nguyen said. “Nevertheless, this number does not necessarily have a direct one-to-one connection with the general population.”

Ranking of lifestyle choices

The study allowed us to rank eight lifestyle behaviors to see which ones maximize longevity.

Part 1: First on the list was exercise. Many experts say exercise is one of the most important actions anyone can take to improve their health. Nguyen added that one healthy behavior reduced the risk of death from any cause by 46 percent compared to those who didn’t exercise.

“We looked at whether they did light, moderate, or vigorous activity compared to just sitting on the couch doing nothing,” Nguyen said. “The longest-lived person was doing 7.5 metabolic hours of physical activity per week. As a rule of thumb, if he can climb stairs without being out of breath, that’s 7.5 minutes for him, or 4 minutes for him.”

This finding is consistent with other studies showing that strenuous, breathless exercise is optimal, but that extreme sports are not required to reap the health benefits of exercise.

Number two: The study found that avoiding opioid addiction was the second most important factor in longevity, reducing the risk of premature death by 38 percent. The opioid crisis in the United States has become a national “public health emergency,” a major issue today, a Department of Health and Human Services agency reported.

Number three: A study found that not smoking at all reduced the risk of death by 29%. If you are an ex-smoker, it will not be considered. “We did it to crack down as hard as possible,” Nguyen said. But experts say quitting smoking at any point in your life can have huge health benefits.

Fourth: Managing stress was second, the study found, leading to a 22 percent reduction in premature death. Stress is an epidemic in the United States today, with devastating effects on health, experts say. And there are ways to change your mindset and turn bad stress into good stress.

Fifth: A study found that eating a plant-based diet increased your chances of living longer by 21 percent. But that doesn’t mean you have to be vegetarian or vegan, Nguyen said. Following a healthy plant-based plan, such as a Mediterranean diet rich in whole grains and green leafy vegetables, was key.

Number six: Avoiding binge eating (drinking four or more alcoholic beverages a day) is also a healthy lifestyle habit that reduces the risk of death by 19 percent, Nguyen said. Binge eating and drinking is on the rise in the US, and it’s not just college students. Studies show that even moderate drinkers are at risk.

Additionally, other studies have found that drinking any amount can be unhealthy, with the possible exception of heart attacks and strokes, and even that finding has been questioned. One study found that even one drink can trigger an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.

Number seven: Getting at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night without insomnia reduces premature death from any cause by 18 percent, Nguyen said. Dozens of studies link poor sleep with all kinds of poor health, including premature death.

Number 8: A study found that being surrounded by positive social relationships increases lifespan by 5 percent. But experts say loneliness and isolation are becoming more prevalent, especially among older people, and are worrying.

“Five percent may seem small, but it’s still a decrease in terms of all-cause mortality,” Nguyen said. “Whether you choose physical activity or make sure you surround yourself with positive social support, even a little bit helps.”

A recent study found that people who experienced social isolation had a 32 percent higher risk of premature death from any cause than those who were not socially isolated. Participants who reported feeling lonely were 14% more likely to die prematurely than those who did not.

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