According to a new study from Harvard researchers, switching to a healthier lifestyle by the time you reach middle age could potentially give you eight to ten more years of healthy life free from age-related diseases.
Healthy habits mean a longer, healthier life
This new epidemiological study shows that adopting the five habits of eating a healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, and not smoking by the time you reach middle age could increase the years of life you live free from type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer .
This research follows a 2018 study from the same team, which showed that observing these five habits also increased overall life expectancy.
The researchers examined 34 years of data from 73,196 women and 28 years of data from 38,366 men from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professions Follow-up Study, respectively. This very sizable amount of people is typical of large-scale epidemiological studies; the large participant number keeps outliers and statistical “noise” to a minimum and greatly aids reliable data upon which to make a conclusion.
According to the study, the five healthy habits are as follows:
- A healthy diet – defined as a high score on the Alternate Healthy Eating Index.
- Regular exercise – at least thirty minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
- Healthy weight – a body mass index of 18.5-24.9 kg/m2.
- Alcohol – up to one serving per day for women and up to two for men.
- Smoking – being a non-smoker.
The researchers discovered that women who observed four or five of these healthy habits by the age of 50 lived an average of 34.4 additional healthy years free from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. This was in contrast to just 23.7 healthy years after 50 for women who observed none of the five healthy habits.
For men, the picture was similar. Men who practiced four or five of these healthy habits at age 50 enjoyed an average of 31.1 years of healthy life from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. Men who did none of these things only had 23.5 years of such healthy life after 50.
The study also showed that men who were smokers, and men and women who were excessively overweight, had the fewest disease-free years after age 50.
The average life expectancy in the world has increased substantially in the past few decades. The aging of the population has led to a high prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Although people live longer, older individuals often live with disabilities and chronic diseases. People with chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes have a shorter life expectancy than do their peers without these chronic conditions. Estimates of the loss in life years due to these chronic conditions range from 7.5 to 20 years, depending on the methods used and the characteristics of the study population.
Modifiable lifestyle factors including smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, body weight, and diet quality affect both total life expectancy and incidence of chronic diseases. Studies have shown that smoking, inactivity, poor diet quality, and heavy alcohol consumption contribute up to 60% of premature deaths and 7.4-17.9 years’ loss in life expectancy. Nevertheless, little research has looked at how a combination of multiple lifestyle factors may relate to life expectancy free from the major diseases of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Because estimates of life expectancy free of chronic diseases take into account both morbidity and mortality, these estimates can be useful metrics for health professionals and the general public, as well as enabling policy makers to better estimate future healthcare costs and to plan for healthcare needs. In a previous analysis, we estimated the effect of healthy lifestyles on the overall life expectancy. In this study, we examine the effect of healthy lifestyle factors on life expectancy free of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, using data from up to 34 years of follow-up in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and 28 years of follow-up in the Health Professions Follow-up Study (HPFS).
This is yet more compelling evidence to support the adoption of healthy lifestyle habits in order to delay the development of age-related diseases. With a myriad of companies working on new approaches to treating age-related diseases, some of which are already in human trials, we could be a mere decade or two away from having some initial solutions to aging and age-related diseases. It would be unfortunate, therefore, not to live long enough to benefit from such new technologies should they arrive.
Quite simply, anyone serious about living a longer life, long enough to potentially be alive when rejuvenation biotechnology is able to make human lives significantly longer, should maximize their chances by following these five healthy habits. There is not much we can currently do to live longer, but these five healthy habits can certainly improve the odds of making it to the point when we might.
 Li, Y., Schoufour, J., Wang, D. D., Dhana, K., Pan, A., Liu, X., … & Al-Shaar, L. (2020). Healthy lifestyle and life expectancy free of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: prospective cohort study. bmj, 368.