Incorporating eight lifestyle habits may help adults live longer
But because some of these ‘habits’ involve recovering from or abstaining from substance use disorders, for some people, habit forming may require help from physicians or addiction specialists.
A new study found that middle-aged adults who practice eight specific habits—ranging from abstaining from addiction to prioritizing sleep—may be able to increase their life expectancy.
Published in the journal Nutrition 2023 this month, the study was an analysis of medical reports for over 700,000 U.S. veterans and found that veterans who practiced all eight habits by age 40 lived more than 20 years longer than those who did not. Study researchers say their findings underscore how poor lifestyle choices can curb life expectancy, while good lifestyle choices can extend it.
The habits include:
Being physically active
Being free from opioid addiction
Having a good diet
Not regularly binge drinking
Having good sleep hygiene
Having positive social relationships
As some of these habits involve improving emotional wellness, the study highlights just how intertwined mental health is with physical health.
Yoo adds that introducing these habits appears to be a “simple, direct, and attainable” method to “ease a person into a better way of living.”
How hard is it to change a habit?
Exactly how feasible it is for people to maintain these habits will vary on a person-to-person basis. Particularly because some of the habits involve limiting or quitting substances—which many people can be chemically addicted to—habit-changing can be easier said than done.
“Unfortunately, alcohol and opioid use disorders are not only difficult to treat but also stigmatized,” says Tejasav Sehrawat, MD, a hospital resident at Yale School of Medicine who has conducted research on alcohol and life expectancy. One of his research focuses is on the importance of treating and preventing alcohol-associated liver disease, which currently has no specific cure.
For individuals hoping to recover from an addiction, Dr. Sehrawat says it can be helpful to start by “recognizing the problem, utilizing social support, and getting help from addiction specialists.” However, as alcohol is a leading cause of preventable death in the US, he adds that individual work should be complemented by physician support and changes to public health policy to most “aggressively and comprehensively” address alcohol’s threat to life expectancy.
Substance use disorders, particularly opioids, can be among the hardest habits to break, says Yoo. For people looking to break an addiction, he recommends detoxes coupled with recovery support systems and lifestyle changes. He suggests focusing on good nutrition and limiting use of other substances, identifying coping skills, and in many cases seeing a specialist or checking into a hospital program. For doctors addressing the topic of substance use disorder recovery with patients, he suggests being direct about the long-term consequences of substance use versus recovery. While everyone is different, for some, data from a study like this may provide hope for the benefits of substance use recovery.
Along with low physical activity, the study found opioid use and smoking were most highly associated with risks of death. People who maintained at least one of the three had around a 30% to 45% higher death risk, according to the findings.
Following that, stress, binge drinking, poor diet, and poor sleep hygiene were associated with about a 20% increase in death risk. Lack of positive social relationships was associated with the smallest increase in death risk, at around 5%.
For people who are not currently ready or able to stop using substances just yet, following some of the eight habits may still benefit their lifespan. The researchers discovered that practicing even one new habit could have a positive impact.
“We were really surprised by just how much could be gained with the adoption of one, two, three, or all eight lifestyle factors,” Xuan-Mai T. Nguyen, health science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs and rising fourth-year medical student at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, said in a press release. “Our research findings suggest that adopting a healthy lifestyle is important for both public health and personal wellness.”
Additionally, the findings showed that there may be power in making changes with age, presenting hope for middle-aged or older adults looking to extend their lifespan.
“Even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it still is beneficial,” said Nguyen.
What this means for you
Incorporating eight lifestyle habits may help adults live longer, even if they start these later in life. However, because some of these habits involve recovering from or abstaining from substance use disorders, which are medical issues, help from physicians or addiction specialists may be necessary to help some people form and maintain all eight habits.