Want to Live Longer? Give Lifestyle a Chance!

Jean-Pierre Despres PhotoJean-Pierre Després, Ph.D., FAHA, FIAS; Professor and Scientific Director, International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk; Director of Research, Cardiology, Québec Heart and Lung Institute, Université Laval (Québec, Canada); Chair, American Heart Association Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health

It’s no secret that prevention is key to a longer, healthier life. A new study shows just how much healthy lifestyle habits are critical not only to extend your life but also to lower your chances of dying from heart disease or cancer.

Not smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping a healthy weight and moderating alcohol intake was found to increase life expectancy at age 50 by 14 years for women and 12 years for men, a remarkable finding! Even better, people who followed those habits were 82 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 65 percent less likely to die from cancer compared to people that did not follow any of these habits. Not only can these five simple lifestyle recommendations make you live longer, they will help you stay healthy and enjoy life!

If adopting all five behaviors looks like climbing Mount Everest for you, the study also found that life expectancy increased with the adoption of each additional behavior. Therefore, each single lifestyle change you make will help you live longer and better.

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, combines data from two ongoing studies that follow thousands of adults (mostly Caucasian health professionals) with information from national surveys of health behaviors and death rates. More research measuring the impact of healthy lifestyles among population subgroups, such as different racial and ethnic groups, is needed.

These spectacular findings clearly show the remarkable impact of lifestyle habits. Clinicians are well-trained to pay attention and manage biological risk factors such as cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes but they are generally ill-equipped to assess and target lifestyle habits. Tremendous gains should be made by implementing “lifestyle medicine” in clinical settings. Healthier lifestyles could help Americans close the life-expectancy gap between the U.S. and other high-income countries like Japan, Canada and Norway.

However, America’s potential for improvement depends not only on individual-level approaches to change unhealthy behaviors, but also on broader systemic approaches that target the food, physical activity and social contexts in which the behaviors occur. For instance, in some urban neighborhoods, it is difficult to walk, bike or to eat well. Easy behaviors become the default choices, but the default choices are often not the healthy choices in many urban settings that are designed for cars and not humans.

The findings strengthen the evidence base to change systems, environments and policies to help make healthier choices more affordable, accessible and attractive. The American Heart Association wants to give all Americans an equitable opportunity to improve their health and avoid disease, and prevention is key.

Together we can work toward changes in cities, neighborhoods and communities. We prioritize interventions in places that are more affected by the social determinants of health (such as low socioeconomic status, low educational attainment, lack of social support and certain residential environments) that are linked with heart disease and its risk factors.

Quantifying the impact of prevention demonstrates its value to policymakers and funders, and helps us identify the best investments to achieve the best health — the best prescription for everyone.

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