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Five simple lifestyle modifications could buy you many more years of life, a new study suggests.
Americans have a shorter lifespan than most other high-income nations — we’re 31st on the longevity list. Harvard researchers wanted to find out why. They analyzed data from two major ongoing studies that include dietary, lifestyle and medical information on more than 100,000 adults: the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.
Their results, published in Circulation Monday, are a comparison of those who follow all five healthy behaviors to those who ascribe to none. Those living the healthiest lives ended up with a bonus of about two decades more of life, said the study’s lead author, Yanping Li, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Since most of us aren’t living a completely unhealthy lifestyle, we won’t have as many modifications to make, and not as many years to gain. Still, “each more low-risk factor was associated with around two to three years longer life expectancy,” Li said. “The more the better."
Researchers recommend the following simple lifestyle changes.
1. Eat a healthy diet.
Follow what the researchers call a "high-quality diet." That means a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit salt, sugar and saturated fat.
2. Don’t smoke.
Smoking is the top risk factor for heart disease and various cancers.
3. Exercise regularly.
The study looked at the impact of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day.
The researchers’ calculations were based on certain levels of exercise, weight and dietary improvement. But you can get more bang for your buck by doing better than those baseline levels, Li said.
“For example, one hour a week of moderate physical activity was associated with around three to four years longer life expectancy, as compared to none, while three hours a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity was associated with six years longer,” Li explained. “And six hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity was associated with eight years longer life expectancy.”
Moderate exercise, even for a few minutes at a time can lower cancer risk and repair heart disease, according to a 2018 study.
4. Keep trim.
The numbers to aim for in the healthy category were BMIs between 18.5 and 24.9. A high body-mass index is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.
5. Drink moderately.
This recommendation comes with a caveat because some studies have linked any kind of alcohol consumption with a heightened risk of cancer. “At this moment we would suggest that alcohol drinkers limit the amount they drink to a moderate level,” Li said. “We would not recommend that non-drinkers drink alcohol just for its cardiovascular disease benefit while ignoring it’s potential risk for cancer.”
A recent study found that more than five alcoholic drinks per week could shorten life by two years.
Dr. Joon Lee hopes the research inspires Americans to lead healthier lives.
“It’s important for the public to understand the magnitude of the impact lifestyle has,” said Lee, chief of the division of cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
We’re just now starting to see the impact of “the tsunami impact of obesity,” Lee said.
Up until 2011, deaths from heart disease had been declining mostly due to improvements in technology and medicine, he said. “But after that it started going up again.”
“If all my patients really understood we are talking about a decade of your life that you could be prolonging they might be inspired to make more changes,” Lee said. “And though the paper doesn’t address this, it’s not simply about extending the duration of your life, but likely also extending the healthy duration of life.”
The straightforwardness of the healthy lifestyle was surprising to Dr. Douglas Vaughan, chair of medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
“It’s remarkable how simple those interventions are,” said Vaughn.