Healthy lifestyle

Healthy lifestyle: 5 keys to a longer life

How is it that the United States spends the most money on health care, yet its life expectancy is still the lowest of all developed nations? (Specifically: $9,400 per person, 79, 31).

Maybe those of us in health care have been looking at it the wrong way for too long.

Healthy lifestyle and longevity

Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a large-scale study on the impact of healthy habits on life expectancy, using data from the well-known Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). This means that they have data on a large number of people over a very long period of time. The NHS included more than 78,000 women and followed them from 1980 to 2014. The HPFS included more than 40,000 men and followed them from 1986 to 2014. This means more than 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men .

The researchers looked at NHS and HPFS data on diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking and alcohol consumption collected from validated and regularly administered questionnaires.

What exactly is a healthy lifestyle?

These five domains were chosen because previous studies have shown that they have a significant impact on the risk of premature death. Here’s how to define and measure these healthy habits:

  1. Healthy diet, which was calculated and evaluated based on reported intake of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods such as red and processed meats and sugar. – Sweetened drinks, trans fats, and sodium.
  2. Healthy physical activity level, measured as at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
  3. Healthy body weight is defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), which ranges between 18.5 and 24.9.
  4. Smoking, well, there is no healthy amount of smoking. “Healthy” here means never smoking.
  5. Moderate alcohol intake, which has been measured as 5 to 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. In general, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This means 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

The researchers also looked at data on age, race, and medication use, as well as comparison data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s large-scale online data for epidemiological research.

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Does a healthy lifestyle make a difference?

As it turns out, healthy habits make a big difference. According to this analysis, people who met criteria for all five habits enjoyed significantly and impressively longer lives than those who had none: 14 years for women and 12 years for men (if they had these habits at age 50). People who had none of these habits were more likely to die prematurely from cancer or cardiovascular disease.

The study researchers also calculated life expectancy by the number of five healthy habits people had. Just one healthy habit (and it doesn’t matter which one)… just one… extended life expectancy by two years in men and women. It is not surprising that the more healthy habits people have, the longer they live. This is one of those situations where I wish I could reprint their charts for you, because they’re so cool. (But if you’re really interested, the article is available online and the chart is on page 7. See Chart B, “Life Expectancy at Age 50 by Number of Low-Risk Factors.”)

This is huge. It confirms previous similar research — a lot of previous similar research. A 2017 study, using data from the Health and Retirement Study, found that people 50 or older who were of normal weight, never smoked, and moderate alcohol drinkers lived an average of seven years longer. A massive 2012 analysis of 15 international studies including more than 500,000 participants found that more than half of premature deaths were due to unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, inactivity and obesity. Excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. The list of supporting research goes on.

So what is our (big) problem?

As the authors of this study point out, in the United States we tend to spend strangely on developing fancy drugs and other treatments for diseases, rather than trying to prevent them. This is a big problem.

Experts have suggested that the best way to help people eat healthy diets and change their lifestyle is at a broad population level, through public health efforts and policy changes. (Such as motorcycle helmet and seat belt legislation…) We have made little progress on tobacco and trans fat legislation.

There is a lot of opposition from major industry on this of course. If we had guidelines and laws that helped us live healthier, big companies wouldn’t sell as much fast food, potato chips and soft drinks. And for companies intent on making money at the expense of human life, this makes them very angry.

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