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Five Healthy Habits That Can Help You Live Longer

Today, I want to share with you five habits that can have a profound impact on your life. Doing all five of these habits can potentially extend your life by 12 to 14 years longer than a peer who doesn’t do any of them.

That’s a pretty significant chunk of time.

Now, you may think that life expectancy in the United States is already pretty good. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Americans Rank 31st for Life Expectancy Worldwide

As one of the richest nations in the world, we have the potential to also be one of the healthiest nations. However, the average life expectancy in the United States is shorter than that of almost all other high-income countries, ranking just 31st for life expectancy worldwide. (1)

So, why is our relatively wealthy nation underperforming on health?

Spending Money on Healthcare Doesn’t Make Us Healthier

The United States ranks second in the world for health expenditures, as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2015 alone, we spent an average of $9,535 per capita, which is equivalent to 16.8 percent of our GDP spent on health expenditures. (2)

You would think spending the most on healthcare would mean we also have the healthiest population, but spending more doesn’t mean we’re healthier.

Why exactly is that?

The answer lies in how we spend our healthcare dollars. The U.S. healthcare system focuses primarily on drug discoveries and disease treatment rather than prevention.

Prevention is Key to Good Health and Longevity

While our healthcare system is quite good as treating diseases, the truth is, the best way to treat diseases is to prevent them in the first place. After all, the most common and costly diseases are usually preventable ones.

For example, chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer can often be prevented, or at least delayed until much later in life, based on environment and lifestyle.

In fact, research generally supports the idea that only 5 to 10 percent of cancer cases are attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90 to 95 percent are a result of environmental and lifestyle factors. (3)

Similarly, additional research has shown that people with a high genetic risk of cardiovascular disease who follow a healthy lifestyle have a 46 percent lower risk of a coronary event, compared to those who follow an unhealthy lifestyle. (4)

So, what lifestyle factors can provide the most health benefit anyway?

These Five Habits Can Help You Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Researchers at Harvard University recently completed a data analysis, in which they used complex and thorough data sets collected over 34 years, to predict an individual’s life expectancy at the age of 50.

They found that adopting all five of the following healthy habits would extend a man’s life by an average of 12.2 years and a woman’s life by 14 years beyond that of a peer who doesn’t do any of these habits. (5)

The five habits identified in their study, published in the medical journal Circulation, are:

  • never smoking;
  • maintaining a healthy weight;
  • exercising regularly;
  • following a healthy diet; and
  • limiting alcohol consumption to a moderate amount. (5)

Based on the data analysis, men who adopt these five healthy habits have a total life expectancy of 87 years, while those who don’t adopt any of the habits have a life expectancy of just 75 years. Similarly, women who adopt all five healthy habits have a life expectancy of 93 years, while those who don’t have a life expectancy of just 79 years. (5)

How to Build These Habits into Your Life Now

Let’s take a look at each of these five habits, how they are defined by the Harvard study, and what you can do to make them a part of your life.

  • Smoking: When it comes to smoking, never having smoked is best for life expectancy. But if you’re a current smoker, your physician can by an ally in helping you to successfully quit for good. In addition to recommending resources and support programs, there are currently seven FDA-approved medications that can help you break your nicotine habit, including over-the-counter and prescription options. (6)
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: In general, a healthy weight is defined by having a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2. You can calculate your own BMI here. If your BMI is high, reducing caloric intake and exercising regularly are integral to any weight loss plan. Additionally, behavioral therapy can be helpful, and in some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications to help you lose weight.
  • Exercising regularly: Regular physical activity is key to living a long, healthful life. In the longevity study, those with the best life expectancy are those who get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Keep in mind that exercise doesn’t need to be intense to be effective. Even moderately vigorous activities, such as brisk walking, are beneficial. For more information on physical activity at every age, check out the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) Physical Activity Basics.
  • Healthy diet: In the Harvard study, the researchers defined healthy diet as those who scored in the top 25 percent of the Alternate Healthy Eating Index. The Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) was created by Dr. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard’s Department of Nutrition, as a way to predict chronic disease risk and mortality, based on diet.

Based on the AHEI, you should strive to eat more vegetables (at least five servings daily), fruit (at least four servings daily), whole grains (2-3 servings daily), nuts and legumes (at least one serving daily), and polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3-fatty acids (at least 250 mg of EPA and DHA daily). On the flip side, you should aim to eat and drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat, sodium, and alcohol. (7)

  • Limiting alcohol to a moderate amount: On the note of alcohol, for the purposes of the study, the researchers defined moderate alcohol consumption as consuming anywhere between 5 and 14.9 grams of alcohol per day. This translates to no more than one alcoholic beverage per day. As a reference point, there are generally 14 grams of alcohol in 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Final Thoughts

When all is said and done, what matters most is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death. The good news is that all five of the healthy habits that can contribute to a long life, also contribute to a high-quality life. In addition to the five healthy habits, which focus on your physical care, remember to also do what you can to care for your mind and spirit: reduce stress, surround yourself with the people you love, and make time to do things you enjoy.

  • World Health Organization. Global Health Observatory Data Repository: life expectancy: data by country. Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/situation_trends/en/. Accessed May 13, 2018.
  • World Bank. World development indicators: health systems. http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/2.12. Accessed May 13, 2018.
  • Anand, P., Kunnumakara, A.B., Sundaram, C. et al. Cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes. Pharmaceutical Research. 2008;25:2097-2116..
  • Khera A.V., Connor A.E., Drake I., et al. Genetic risk, adherence to a healthy lifestyle, and coronary disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 2016;375:3249-2358.
  • Li Y., Pan A., Wang D.D., et al. Impact of healthy lifestyle factors on life expectancies in the US population. Circulation. 2018;137.
  • U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Want to Quit Smoking? FDA-Approved Products Can Help. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm198176.htm. Accessed May 13, 2018.
  • Chiuve S.E., Fung, T.T., Rimm, E.B., et al. Alternative dietary indices both strongly predict risk of chronic disease. Journal of Nutrition. 2012;142:1009-1018.

Wishing you health and wellness,

Dr. Zivich


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