Stop searching for the fountain of youth: Research indicates that a longer life expectancy may be achieved simply by sticking to a few basic health habits. A new study, published in the July issue of health-policy journal Health Affairs, shows that a combination of maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking cigarettes and—the real kicker—drinking in moderation, may add as much as seven years to your life.
"We've done a lot of work on looking at individual behavior—poor diet and exercise, smoking, drinking alcohol in excess—but we haven't really focused on healthy lifestyles as a whole," Dr. Neil Mehta, professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan and the study's co-author, told Wine Spectator. "We really wanted to get a handle on what healthy lifestyles overall are doing, not only to an individual's health, but also health in the U.S. as a whole, as measured by life expectancy."
Using data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, a long-term longitudinal survey on the health habits of Americans ages 50 and older, researchers analyzed a sample of 14,804 participants who were interviewed every other year from 1998 to 2012. From the survey data, they grouped the individuals into separate categories based on three lifestyle behaviors—obesity, cigarette smoking habits and alcohol consumption—and calculated the estimated life expectancies of each group.
Based on preliminary analysis of past studies, researchers labeled the group of individuals who were not obese (those with a body-mass index scores under 30), who never smoked cigarettes (including those who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lives), and who drank in moderation (fewer than 14 drinks per week for men and fewer than seven drinks per week for women) as the group practicing the lowest-risk (and most ideal) behaviors. On the flip side, obese smokers who drank heavily, rarely or not at all were considered the highest-risk group.
This is interesting in itself; while it's universally accepted that maintaining a healthy weight and refraining from smoking are good choices, many scientists are still in disagreement regarding the health benefits of alcohol. Dr. Mehta, however, believes there is enough information to be convinced. "What we've found—what other studies have shown—is that individuals who drink moderately tend to have better outcomes compared to those who completely abstain from alcohol and to those who drink very heavily."
The study's results may further prove this idea. Using structured matrix population models, the researchers determined that non-obese individuals who never smoked and who drank moderately live on average about seven years longer than the average life expectancy of all men and women in the study (which is 77.7 years for men and 81.5 years for women), and about 11 and 12 years, respectively, longer than obese men and women who smoke and do not drink in moderation.
Perhaps more significantly, the study showed that not only can the low-risk populations live longer, but they may spend those extra years in good health. Non-obese subjects who never smoked and were moderate drinkers displayed the longest postponement of disability, first experiencing disability at a mean age of 72.1 for men and 75.2 for women—about five and eight years later than in the whole populations, respectively.
Of course, the study is not without its limitations. While alcohol consumption, smoking and diet have large impacts on overall health, there are countless other behaviors, plus genetics, that play a role in an individual's longevity. Additionally, as the report notes, sufficiently detailed patient history is rarely available in health surveys, and in this case, a participant's behavior in the past could still dictate their life expectancy, even if their current behavior is different. And as with most studies of this kind, participants self-reported the data, which leaves room for inaccurate reporting of personal behaviors, unintentional or otherwise.
Nonetheless, this study calls to attention some potentially life-changing implications not just for individuals, but also for societies on the whole. In the report, Dr. Mehta and co-author Mikko Myrskylä, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, call for large-scale policy changes aimed at fostering healthy habits in the U.S. They cite antismoking campaigns and the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund as positive examples of how governments can help pave the way for longer life paths.
"We're focused a lot on investing in new medical technologies that will advance our life, and that's not a bad thing," Dr. Mehta said. "But we also have to realize that by investing in prevention and by individuals making better choices in their health behaviors, we can gain a tremendous amount in overall life expectancy, and also healthy life expectancy. So yes, we can invest in medical technology, but there's a lot we already know that we can do to improve outcomes for individuals as well as populations."