You know you're supposed to work out, eat well, and do all the other "healthy" things your doctor tells you to do. But do you know why? A new study led by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds strong evidence that maintaining five lifestyle habits—eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and, yes, drinking alcohol in moderation—can add over a decade to your lifespan.
Previous studies have established these habits—moderate drinking included—as healthy lifestyle factors. But according to the study, this is the first comprehensive analysis of how adopting these low-risk lifestyle factors may affect life expectancy in the U.S.
The study, published April 30 in Circulation, the American Heart Association's journal on cardiovascular disease research, looked at 34 years of data from 78,865 women and 27 years of data from 44,354 men, sourced from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, respectively. It aimed to quantify how much these five healthy lifestyle factors might be able to increase longevity of life in the U.S., where life expectancy is lower than in most other high-income countries. (The U.S. ranked 31st in the world for life expectancy in 2015, with an average of 79.3 years.)
The researchers found that women in the studies who did not practice any of the five healthy habits had an average life expectancy at age 50 of 29 years, while men who did not practice any of the habits had an average life expectancy at age 50 of 25.5 years. But for those who adopted all five low-risk factors, life expectancy at age 50 was expected to be 43.1 years for women and 37.6 years for men.
To save you from some math, that means women who maintained all five healthy habits lived an average of 14 years longer than those who practiced none of the habits; the difference in men was roughly 12 years. The more habits a person followed, the longer their life expectancy.
The researchers also discovered that women and men who maintained all five healthy habits were 82 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 65 percent less likely to die from cancer, compared to those who practiced none of the habits.
For alcohol specifically, those who drank moderately—5 to 15 grams per day for women and 5 to 30 grams per day for men (or roughly up to one glass of wine per day for women and two for men)—had longer life expectancies than those who drank heavily and those who abstained. However, the study's researchers emphasize that this is not an excuse to drink alcohol under the guise of extending your life.
"Our message is the same as the American Dietary Guidelines: Nobody should start drinking just because it protects your heart and diabetes risk. However, if you drink, try your best to keep it moderate," Dr. Yanping Li, a research scientist involved in the study, told Wine Spectator.
Unfortunately, less than 2 percent of the people in the studies followed all five habits.
"The take-home message is just to try to be healthier," she said. "It's never too late, and it's never too small. Just a little progress to a healthy lifestyle, and you will improve your life expectancy."
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