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Are Healthy Habits Worth Cultivating?

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A recent study conducted by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that cultivating healthy habits can potentially add years to your life and help prevent serious illnesses like diabetes and cancer. With the opportunity to extend our time on this earth, it only makes sense to ensure that these additional years are filled with joy and good health.

Research Focus

The study delved into data obtained from two long-term health studies: the Nurses' Health Study (NHS) involving over 73,000 women over a span of 34 years, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) involving over 38,000 men over a span of 28 years.

In a previous analysis of the same data, the researchers identified five low-risk lifestyle habits that were found to significantly increase life expectancy. The more individuals practiced these habits, the longer they lived. The following were the identified habits:

  • Healthy Diet: This was determined by evaluating regular consumption of nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, it also took into account the avoidance of less healthy or unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and excessive sodium.
  • Healthy Physical Activity Level: Individuals who engaged in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, such as brisk walking, on a daily basis were considered to have a healthy activity level.
  • Healthy Body Weight: A normal body mass index (BMI) ranging from 18.5 to 24.9 was deemed indicative of healthy body weight.
  • Never Smoking: The study emphasized that smoking, in any amount, is detrimental to health.
  • Low-Risk Alcohol Intake: Consuming between 5 and 15 grams of alcohol per day for women and 5 to 30 grams per day for men was considered to be within the low-risk range. For reference, a standard drink typically contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, such as a 12-ounce regular beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits.

Even if individuals practiced only one of these habits, they were found to live two years longer on average compared to those who practiced none. Furthermore, women who consistently adhered to all five habits by the age of 50 gained an extra 14 years of life, while men gained an additional 12 years. That's over a decade of extra life to savor!

Healthy Years

In addition to extending life expectancy, the study aimed to determine if these extra years were also accompanied by good health. Participants were asked to respond to follow-up questionnaires regarding the development of medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and strokes), and cancer. The accuracy of participants' responses was further verified by reviewing their medical records.

The findings revealed that individuals who practiced at least four out of the five healthy habits experienced significant protection against these illnesses, gaining on average an additional decade of life free from such diseases.

The Importance of Prevention

Why is this significant? Chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and obesity are associated with substantial health implications, including hospitalizations and the need for nursing home care. For example, diabetes can result in devastating complications such as blindness, amputations, and kidney failure necessitating dialysis. The top 10 diagnoses leading to nursing home care, according to the National Association of Health Data Organizations, include strokes, heart disease, and obesity, all of which have strong associations with diet and lifestyle choices.

Steps Towards a Longer, Healthier Life

If you find yourself approaching middle age, there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of enjoying a longer and healthier life while reducing the risk of disability or long-term care:

  • Eat a Plant-Based Diet: Emphasize consuming fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Minimize the intake of fast or fried foods, sweets, sugary beverages, and red or processed meats such as cold cuts.
  • Maintain Regular Physical Activity: Strive to engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily. Even as little as 10 minutes of movement per week has shown notable health benefits.
  • Work Towards a Healthy Weight: Aim to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Remember that even small weight loss, such as shedding a few pounds, has tangible benefits, such as reducing the risk of diabetes for individuals at risk.
  • Quit Smoking or Vaping: Although this study focused on individuals who had never smoked, quitting at any stage in life offers significant health advantages. It is never too late to quit and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.
  • Consume Alcohol in Moderation: If you choose to drink alcohol, keep in mind the recommended limits of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

By implementing these healthy habits, you can proactively enhance your well-being and increase your odds of living a fulfilling life well into old age.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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