BOSTON — Healthy habits go a long way toward improving mind and body now, but are also a long-term health investment. According to a new study, five healthy lifestyle choices in middle age not only increase life expectancy, but they’ll reduce the number of years older adults spend battling chronic diseases.
Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health expanded on a 2018 study of theirs which established five habits in middle age — healthy eating, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking — can boost life expectancy.
This followup study suggests these same practices may also increase one’s likelihood of enjoying extra years of good health overall.
“Previous studies have found that following a healthy lifestyle improves overall life expectancy and reduces risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, but few studies have looked at the effects of lifestyle factors on life expectancy free from such diseases,” says lead author Yanping Li, senior research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the university, in a statement. “This study provides strong evidence that following a healthy lifestyle can substantially extend the years a person lives disease-free.”
For their research, the authors used 34 years of data collected from 73,196 women, and 28 years of data from 38,366 men from two prior studies. They determined a healthy diet as a high score on the Alternate Healthy Eating Index, which measures the overall quality of one’s diet. Regular exercise equated to a minimum of 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous activity. A body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2 was considered a healthy weight. Moderate alcohol consumption was deemed one or fewer servings per day for women and two or fewer servings per day for men.
The results showed that when women practiced none of the healthy habits at age 50, they lived just 23.7 years free of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Conversely, women who practiced four or five of the healthy habits, however, lived 34.4 more years free of these chronic diseases. That is a potential gain of nearly 11 healthy years for women who maintained these habits in middle age.
Meanwhile, men who did not practice any of the healthy habits at age 50 could expect 23.5 years free of chronic disease. Yet men who followed the Harvard researchers’ guidelines lived an average of 31.1 healthier years — a potential gain of almost eight disease-free years.
Not surprisingly, researchers found that smoking and obesity took the heaviest tolls on long-term health outcomes. Men and women who were obese as well as men who were heavy smokers had the lowest disease-free life expectancy.
Researchers say the study results indicate the need for public policies that promote healthy habits. They conclude that healthier food choices and physical environments could improve quality of life and help reduce the high costs of treating chronic diseases.
The study is published online in BMJ.