5 basic steps to add years to your life, according to researchers

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published January 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

What would you do to prolong your life? Believe it or not, this doesn’t involve making a deal with the Devil himself like Oscar Wilde’s tragic character, Dorian Gray. According to results from a recent study published in the BMJ, this may be as simple as five healthy lifestyle factors, which, when maintained in middle age, may be linked to longer life expectancy devoid of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Lower life expectancy is currently a major concern in the US, and any strides made in that arena will likely be dwarfed by those in other industrialized nations, moving forward. In the United States, the average life expectancy is 78.6 years compared with 82.3 years in similar countries, according to the Peterson KFF Health System Tracker.

Fortunately, if the average American wants to live as long as those in other countries, there are 5 specific healthy lifestyle factors that, if followed, may help achieve this goal.

The five factors:

  • Keeping a healthy diet

  • Exercising regularly

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Not smoking

  • Limiting alcohol intake

Researchers mined 34 years of data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study in this high-powered, double-cohort study to pinpoint these factors. Specifically, these factors were defined as follows: higher diet quality scores, per the Alternate Healthy Eating Index; 30+ minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day; maintaining a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2; complete smoking cessation; and, at most, one serving of alcohol per day for women and up to two servings for men.   

The researchers observed that life expectancy without chronic disease at age 50 years was 23.5 years in male participants who adhered to none of these low-risk lifestyle variables, which jumped to 31.1 years in those who adhered to four out of five. In women, these measures were 23.7 years for those who adhered to none of the low-risk lifestyle factors, compared with 34.4 years in those who adopted four or five of them.

Adherence to a low-risk lifestyle conferred a greater increase in life expectancy free of diabetes than one free of cancer and heart disease. Overall, 50% of cancer deaths, 70% of cardiovascular deaths, 80% of coronary heart disease diagnoses, and 90% of diabetes diagnoses occurred secondary to failed adherence to these low-risk factors.  

Among the lifestyle changes, alcohol had the least effect on disease-free longevity.

“We observed a relatively small difference in life expectancies across different levels of alcohol consumption compared with other individual lifestyle factors,” the authors wrote. “The cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have been consistently observed in large cohort studies, but alcohol consumption and risk of cancer showed a dose-response relation. Thus, current guidelines do not encourage a non-alcohol drinker to start drinking just for the benefit of preventing cardiovascular disease.”

Smoking, poor diet quality, high levels of alcohol intake, and sedentary lifestyle combined to lead to up to between 7.4 and 17.9 years of lost life expectancy, and account for 60% of premature deaths, according to previous research. The current study is distinct in examining the effects of multiple low-risk lifestyle choices on healthy life expectancy. 

“Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help to reduce the healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy,” the authors noted. 

“Public policies for improving food and the physical environment conducive to adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle, as well as relevant policies and regulations (for example, smoking ban in public places or trans-fat restrictions), are critical to improving life expectancy, especially life expectancy free of major chronic diseases,” they concluded.

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