A study published in the British Medical Journal shows that our overall lifestyle choices affects our chances of a long life. It is not one factor alone, like smoking or drinking, but the combination of lifestyles that has the overwhelming effect.
The study, conducted over 24 years, followed nearly 78 000 women. This is the largest study of this kind to connect lifestyles with mortality. Lifestyle factors looked at included, overweight, excessive alcohol consumption (more than a drink a day) smoking, healthy or unhealthy diet and regular physical activity.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health conducted the study. They found that whereas each factor did contribute to health, a combination of a healthy diet, normal weight, not smoking and drinking, and regular physical exercise had a dramatic effect in lowering death from all causes, and risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.
“A healthy diet and lifestyle has a profound influence on risk of premature death due to chronic diseases. The results of the study reinforce the need to strengthen public health efforts around quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and diet and performing regular physical activity,” said Rob van Dam, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who led the study.
The researchers analyzed the participants' responses to questionnaires about lifestyle and health conditions over a 24-year period, beginning in 1980. During the follow-up, 8,882 deaths were recorded, including 1,790 from cardiovascular disease and 4,527 from cancer.
Van Dam and his colleagues estimated that 55% of deaths from all causes, 44% of cancer mortality and 72% of cardiovascular mortality during follow-up could have been avoided if participants had never smoked, engaged in regular physical activity, avoided becoming overweight and ate a healthy diet.
Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with lower cardiovascular mortality; higher consumption (two or more drinks per day) with an increased risk of cancer mortality.
“Our findings suggest that the combination of lifestyle factors has a substantially larger impact on survival than any single factor. Clearly, avoiding smoking is of major importance for health, but regular physical activity, a healthy diet and weight management can result in large additional health benefits. Even modest lifestyle changes such as 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) per day significantly reduced risk of premature death,” said van Dam.
“Because prevalence of smoking has declined but prevalence of obesity is increasing rapidly, the impact of obesity on chronic diseases and mortality will become even more pronounced in the future,” added Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and senior author of the study.