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Want to live up to 24 years? Add eight healthy lifestyle choices to your life at age 40 and it can happen, according to a new unpublished study Analyzing data on US veterans.
Start at age 50 instead? No problem, you can extend your life by up to 21 years, study finds. Age 60? If you adopt all eight healthy habits you will gain about 18 years.
“Over a 20-year period, whether you make these changes gradually or all at once,” said lead study author Xuan-My Nguyen, a health science specialist with the Million Veteran Program at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
“We also did an analysis to see if we were eliminating people with conditions like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, cancer, would that change the outcome? It really didn’t,” she said. “So, if you’re starting out with chronic disease, making changes still helps.”
What are these magical health habits? Nothing you haven’t heard before: exercise, eat healthy, reduce stress, sleep well, and cultivate good social relationships. On the other hand, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, and don’t get addicted to opioids.
“Earlier is better, but even if you change it a little in your 40s and 50s Or in the 60s, it’s still beneficial,” Nguyen said. “It’s not out of reach — it’s actually something that ordinary people can achieve.”
The study, presented Monday at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, examined the lifestyle behaviors of nearly 720,000 veterans between the ages of 40 and 99. All were part of the Million Veteran Program, a longitudinal study designed to investigate the health and well-being of US veterans.
Adding just one healthy behavior to a 40-year-old man’s life can add 4.5 years to his life, Nguyen said. Adding a second led to seven years, while adopting three habits extended men’s lives by 8.6 years. Men also benefited as the number of additional lifestyle changes increased, adding nearly a quarter of a century of extra life.
Women also saw big jumps in life expectancy, Nguyen said, though adding different numbers than men. Adopting just one healthy behavior added 3.5 years to a woman’s life, while two added eight years and three added 12.6 years, adding all the healthy habits added 22.6 years to a woman’s life.
“Doing all eight had a synergistic effect, an extra boost to extend your life, but any small change made a difference,” Nguyen said.
After adjusting for age, body mass index, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, education level and family income level, “the study found an 87% relative reduction in mortality among those adopting all lifestyle factors,” Nguyen said.
You are not weak. You’re using the wrong weights at the gym
“A major strength of this analysis is that the population was very diverse by race, ethnicity, and SES (socioeconomic status),” said senior study author and leading nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett said.
The study could only show an association, not direct cause and effect, and because it focused on veterans, the findings may not translate to all Americans. However, the veterans in the study were “retired and were not on active duty or military training,” Nguyen said. “Even then, the numbers don’t necessarily translate directly to a general population.”
The study was able to evaluate the eight lifestyle behaviors that have the greatest boost to longevity.
Number 1: First on the list was exercise, which many experts say is one of the most important behaviors anyone can do to improve their health. Nguyen said that a healthy behavior reduced the risk of death from any cause by 46% compared to those who did not exercise.
“We looked at whether they did light, moderate, or vigorous activity compared to doing nothing and sitting on the couch,” Nguyen said. “People who lived longer exercised 7.5 metabolic equivalent hours per week. To give you a baseline – if you can walk up a flight of stairs without losing your breath, that’s four minutes of 7.5.
That finding echoes the results of other studies that show that while more vigorous activities that cause you to lose your breath are better, you don’t have to do intense sports to get the health benefits of exercise.
Read: Sign up for CNN’s fitness, but great newsletter series. Our seven-part guide will help you get into a healthy routine with expert support.
Number 2: Avoiding addiction to opioids is the second major contributor to longevity, reducing the risk of early death by 38%, the study found. The opioid crisis in the U.S. is a national “public health emergency” because it is a major issue today, an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services reported.
Number 3: Never using tobacco reduced the risk of death by 29%, the study found. If a person is a former smoker, that doesn’t count: “We did it to be as strict as we could,” Nguyen said. However, quitting smoking at any stage of life has huge health benefits, experts say.
Number 4: Managing stress was next, reducing early death by 22%, the study found. Stress is rampant in the U.S. today, with devastating health consequences, experts say. There are ways to refresh your perspective and turn bad stress into good stress.
Read: Sign up for CNN’s pressure, but less newsletter. Our six-part mindfulness guide will inform and inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it..
Number 5: Studies have found that eating a plant-based diet increases your chances of living longer by 21%. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a vegetarian or vegan, Nguyen said. It’s important to follow a healthy plant-based plan, such as a Mediterranean diet full of whole grains and leafy greens.
Read: Sign up for CNN’s Eat But Better: Mediterranean Style. Our eight-part guide shows you a delicious, expert-backed diet that will add health to your life.
Number 6: Avoiding heavy drinking — consuming more than four alcoholic drinks per day — is another healthy lifestyle habit that lowers the risk of death by 19%, Nguyen said. Binge drinking is on the rise in the US, and it’s not just college students. Even moderate drinkers are at risk, studies say.
Additionally, other studies have found that any amount of alcohol consumption is unhealthy except for heart attacks and strokes, and even that finding has been challenged. A study found even one drink can cause an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.
Number 7: Getting a good night’s sleep — defined as seven to nine hours a night without insomnia — reduces early death from any cause by 18%, Nguyen said. Dozens of studies have linked poor sleep to all kinds of poor health outcomes, including premature deaths.
Read: Sign up for CNN’s Sleep, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide has helpful tips for getting better sleep.
Number 8: The study found that being surrounded by good social relationships contributed to a 5% longer life expectancy. However, loneliness and isolation, especially among the elderly, is more prevalent and worrisome, experts say.
“Five percent may seem small, but it’s still low given the all-cause mortality rate,” Nguyen said. “Whether you choose physical activity or making sure you have good social support, every little bit helps.”
A recent study found that people who experience social isolation are 32% more likely to die early from any cause compared to those who are not socially isolated. Those who experienced loneliness were 14% more likely to die early than non-participants.