Healthy habits like regular exercise, healthy eating and not smoking or drinking may give you a decade of extra healthy life, a study has found.
Scientists said women could extend their healthy life expectancy – before conditions like cancer, heart disease or diabetes start to set in – by as much as 10 years.
And if men follow the basic lifestyle advice they could add another seven disease-free years to their lives.
The study of more than 100,000 people found slim, active, non-smoking 50-year-olds can expect significantly more years in good health than their unhealthy peers.
Experts from Harvard University and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences led the study, which tracked the health of men and women in the US.
All the people in the study were disease-free when it started and were followed up for more than 20 years.
The scientists then monitored who in the group developed heart disease, cancer or type 2 diabetes, and the ages at which they became ill and when they died.
Heart disease is the second biggest single cause of death in the UK, after dementia, and accounted for almost 56,000 deaths in 2018. And all cancers combined kill some 165,000 British people per year.
In the US around 647,000 people die each year of heart disease alongside 610,000 cancer patients.
The researchers considered five main health risk factors – smoking tobacco, drinking ‘moderate’ amounts of alcohol, eating a lot of unhealthy food high in fat or sugar, not exercising, and being overweight (measured by a high body mass index).
Non-exercise was classed as less than half an hour a day, on average.
While moderate drinking was the daily consumption of up to one 175ml glass of wine or three-quarters of a pint of beer for a woman, or a pint-and-a-half of beer or two 175ml glasses of wine for a man.
Using these factors, the researchers worked out how many more healthy years of life a person could expect at the age of 50.
Women who had four or five of the healthy habits – eating well, exercising, not smoking, not drinking and maintaining a healthy weight – had a healthy life expectancy of 84.4 years.
This compared to 73.7 for women who had none of the good habits.
The life expectancy was 81.1 for the healthiest men and 73.5 for the least healthy.
The researchers, led by Harvard’s Dr Frank Hu, wrote in their paper: ‘We observed that adherence to a low-risk lifestyle was associated with a longer life expectancy at age 50 free of major chronic diseases.
‘[It added] approximately 7.6 years in men and 10 years in women compared with participants with no low-risk lifestyle factors.
‘Public policies for improving food and the physical environment conducive to adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle, as well as relevant policies and regulations (for example, smoking ban in public places or trans-fat restrictions) are critical to improving life expectancy, especially life expectancy free of major chronic diseases.’
Men who smoked more than 15 cigarettes a day and obese men and women (those with a BMI over 30) had the worst chances of living a life free from disease.
The scientists said most of the people in their study were white and worked in the medical profession, which may mean the results would be different in other groups.
They didn’t explain the reasons for the differences in life expectancy, but all five of the habits in the study are well known to increase the risk of dying young.
Too little exercise, a bad diet and being overweight are all closely linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
And smoking and drinking are also known to cause at least a dozen types of cancer and contribute to heart disease and stroke.
Professor Jonathan Valabhji, an NHS director overseeing obesity and diabetes, said: ‘Expanding waistlines are damaging for both the health of the nation and the NHS – leading to a string of dangerous diseases with a heavy cost for taxpayers.
‘The NHS Long Term Plan is playing its part through a range of ambitious actions – including piloting low calorie diets which have been shown can put type 2 diabetes into remission – but people can take simple common sense steps to lead longer and healthier lives.’
The researchers published their study in the British Medical Journal.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Sam Blanchard