People who adopt eight healthy habits by the age of 40 may live about two decades longer than those who don’t. The effect is lower but still significant for people who have these eight habits by the time they are 60 years old.
Xuan-Mai Nguyen at the VA Boston Healthcare System and her colleagues collected data on physical activity, diet, sleep, mental health, relationships and alcohol use from a group of more than 700,000 US veterans between 40 and 99 years old. Participants completed a survey on their lifestyles between 2011 and 2019, and the researchers analyzed this alongside data from their health records.
During the eight-year study period, 33,375 participants died. After adjusting for factors such as age, socioeconomic status and race, the researchers found that there were eight habits that were correlated with a significantly lower risk of dying from any cause during this period. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining positive social relationships, managing stress, consuming alcohol in moderation, never smoking, sleeping well and not having an opioid use disorder.
Physical activity influenced longevity the most. Moderate exercise – equivalent to at least briskly walking a few blocks per day – was associated with a 46 per cent lower risk of dying during the eight-year time frame than being sedentary.
People without a history of opioid use disorder had a 38 per cent reduced risk of death in the period than those who did, and those who never smoked had a 29 per cent lower risk versus current or former smokers.
A healthy diet including mostly whole, plant-based foods, and stress management – determined by a low score on a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) assessment – decreased the chances of dying during the period by about 20 per cent. The same is true for moderation when it comes to alcohol, defined as drinking no more than four alcoholic beverages in a day, as well as sleeping 7 to 9 hours a night. Positive social relationships had the least influence, lowering the chance of death in the time frame by only 5 per cent.
Using this information, Nguyen and his colleagues modeled the lifespan of people who adopted all eight habits by 40 years old. Men and women would live almost 24 years longer and 23 years longer, respectively, than those who didn’t adopt any intervention. If participants implemented interventions by 60 years old, their lives could be 18 years longer, regardless of gender.
“These eight lifestyle factors don’t involve medications. Doctors don’t necessarily need to be involved,” says Nguyen, who presented these findings on July 24 at the American Society for Nutrition conference in Boston. “That is very powerful because it shows that individuals can really have a say over their future [health].”
However, Jenny Jia at Northwestern University in Illinois says it isn’t always that simple. “There can be barriers at the community level, environmental level or policy level to adopt some of these lifestyle behaviors,” she says. For example, people in low-income neighborhoods may not have access to healthy food options, which also tend to be more expensive and require additional prep time than less healthy alternatives.
It is also important to remember this is an observational study, meaning it only found associations, says Nguyen. We cannot assume that the habits themselves extend lifespan.