Aging, Fitness

Healthy lifestyle in middle age adds years of life free of chronic disease

From Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Maintaining five healthy habits—eating a healthy dietexercising regularly, keeping a healthy body weight, not drinking too much alcohol, and not smoking—at middle-age may increase years lived free of type 2 diabetescardiovascular disease, and cancer, according to a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study will be published online January 8, 2020 in BMJ. It is a follow-up and extension of a 2018 study, which found that following these habits increased overall life expectancy.

At the age of 50, study participants were asked if they met at least four of these five criteria:

  • They had never smoking
  • Eating a health, balanced diet
  • Engaged in 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity every day
  • Had a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9
  • Drank no more alcohol than a small glass of wine a day for women and a pint of beer for men.

“Previous studies have found that following a healthy lifestyle improves overall life expectancy and reduces risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, but few studies have looked at the effects of lifestyle factors on life expectancy free from such diseases,” said first author Yanping Li, senior research scientist in the Department of Nutrition. “This study provides strong evidence that following a healthy lifestyle can substantially extend the years a person lives disease-free.”

The researchers looked at 34 years of data from 73,196 women and 28 years of data from 38,366 men participating in, respectively, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

Healthy diet was defined as a high score on the Alternate Healthy Eating Index; regular exercise as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity; healthy weight as a body mass index of 18.5-24.9 kg/m2; and moderate alcohol intake as up to one serving per day for women and up to two for men.

They found that women who practiced four or five of the healthy habits at age 50 lived an average of 34.4 more years free of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, compared to 23.7 healthy years among women who practiced none of these healthy habits.

Men practicing four or five healthy habits at age 50 lived 31.1 years free of chronic disease, compared to 23.5 years among men who practiced none. Men who were current heavy smokers, and men and women with obesity, had the lowest disease-free life expectancy.

“Given the high cost of chronic disease treatment, public policies to promote a healthy lifestyle by improving food and physical environments would help to reduce health care costs and improve quality of life,” said senior author Frank Hu, Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair, Department of Nutrition.

Other Harvard Chan School study authors included Dong Wang, Klodian Dhana, Xiaoran Liu, Mingyang Song, Gang Liu, Qi Sun, Laila Al-Shaar, Molin Wang, Eric B. Rimm, Ellen Hertzmark, Meir J. Stampfer, and Walter C. Willett.

Funding for the study came from grants UM1 CA186107, R01 HL034594, R01 HL060712, R01 HL088521, P01 CA87969, UM1 CA167552, and R01 HL35464 from the National Institutes of Health.

“Healthy lifestyle and life expectancy free of cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes: prospective cohort study,” Yanping Li, Josje Schoufour, Dong D. Wang, Klodian Dhana, An Pan, Xiaoran Liu, Mingyang Song, Gang Liu, Hyun Joon Shin, Qi Sun, Laila Al-Shaar, Molin Wang, Eric B. Rimm, Ellen Hertzmark, Meir J. Stampfer, Walter C. Willett, Oscar H. Franco, Frank B. Hu, BMJ, online January 8, 2019, doi: 10.1136/bmj.l6669