PUBLIC HEALTH
April 16, 2020

Your Priorities for a Healthy Old Age

There's one risk factor for chronic disease that out-weighs most others -- even smoking and drinking and eating poorly. Can you guess what it is?

Certain healthy habits can improve our health and reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases. We all know that. A new study narrows that advice to a combination of four healthy habits that are linked to a longer, healthier life. All involved being at a healthy weight.

Engaging in regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, controlling our weight, not smoking and consuming alcohol in moderation are lifestyle choices that can benefit us now and keep us healthy longer. No surprises, here — health promotion programs and strategies all stress these healthy habits. But is there a particularly potent combination or set of priorities when it comes to healthy behaviors?

To see which lifestyle habits are most likely to lead to a disease-free lifespan, European researchers looked at the results of 12 studies that included over 100,000 people who were healthy at the beginning of each study. Participants were scored on four lifestyle habits: smoking status; body mass index (BMI); physical activity level; and alcohol consumption. For example, a score of zero was given to current smokers, one was given for those who had quit smoking and two for those who never smoked. Higher scores indicated healthier lifestyles.

Sixteen lifestyle profiles were created using the various combinations of risk factors. Then researchers determined how many years each participant lived from 40 to 75 without developing a major chronic disease such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease or cancer.

Is there a particularly potent combination or set of priorities when it comes to healthy behaviors?

A life free of chronic disease lasted nearly 10 years longer among those with a high overall healthy lifestyle score compared to those with the worst lifestyle score. Four lifestyle factors were associated with living longer free of disease, and all included being at a healthy weight. A BMI of less than 25 combined with never smoking, moderate alcohol consumption and regular physical activity were linked to the longest lives without developing chronic disease.

Keeping to a good weight seems to be the cornerstone of a long and healthy life. All of the four lifestyle profiles that were associated with the highest number of disease-free years included a body-mass index less than 25 and at least two of the following factors: never smoking, physical activity and moderate alcohol consumption. The more healthy habits a person engaged in — in addition to having a BMI under 25 — the more disease-free years were added to their lives. The findings held true in both men and women and across socioeconomic levels.

Getting the maximum number of disease-free years of life is a goal we all share. The best chance at achieving this goal appears to be attaining and maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in physical activity regularly, not smoking and enjoying alcoholic beverages in moderation.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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