Change These Four Risk Factors and Lengthen Your Life

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A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health emphasizes what we already know – chronic disease shortens life expectancy. What most Americans need to be aware of is that four risk factors that lead to chronic disease are preventable and simple changes can lengthen your expected life span.

Harvard researchers collaborated with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington for the study based on eight subgroups of the US population, called the “Eight Americas”. These subgroups are defined by race, county location and socioeconomic features. Data was used from the 2005 National Center for Health Statistics, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

The group found that four health factors – smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and excess weight – currently reduce the life expectancy of US men by 4.9 years and women by 4.1 years and are responsible for thousands of premature death each year from diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

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When broken down into the subgroups, Southern rural blacks had the largest reduction in life expectancy due to these four factors – 6.7 years for men and 5.7 years for women. Among all groups, this group had the highest blood pressure and Southern low-income rural black women had the highest body mass index (BMI).

If each individual risk factor was reduced to its optimal level, many Americans could life longer healthier lives. For example, a reduction of blood pressure to a normal 120/80 could result in an additional 1.5 years for men and 1.6 years for women. Weight loss down to a BMI range of 20-25 could result in an added 1.3 years for both genders. The most desirable risk factor to change to result in a longer life span is smoking cessation. Men could live 2.5 years longer and women could live 1.8 years longer.

Parade Magazine recently offered 7 tips for increasing lifespan due to improved nutrition, healthcare and disease prevention:

1. Get plenty of rest, but not too much. In a 2002 study, those reporting less than five hours or more than eight hours of sleep a night had the shortest life span. Get enough rest for your individual needs – the study found seven hours a night was best for most people.
2. Eat Right. Make changes to your daily diet to include more whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables and lean meats, and less processed foods, sodium, and sugar. These simple changes can result not only in weight loss, but also an improvement to heart disease risk, blood pressure, and diabetes glucose levels.
3. Weight Maintenance. Along with eating right, weight loss can improve your health and lengthen your lifespan. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that abdominal fat in particular was associated with a 25% higher mortality (death) rate.
4. Make and Keep Good Friends. Having a social network of close friends is essential to longevity. An Australians study found that people living with large social networks were 22% less likely to die over the following decade.
5. Exercise Both Mind and Body. A separate Harvard study found that regular vigorous exercise can extend the lifespan. It also contributes to lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose, lower cholesterol, and lower weight. Keep the brain healthy with problem-solving games, active interest in hobbies, and other activities that keep you focused and having fun.
6. Get Fresh Air. While we may not be able to directly influence much of the air pollution around us, we can do some simple things to ensure we are breathing the best air possible. Of course, number one is to stop smoking and to stop hanging around smokers. Find ways to reduce your own personal carbon footprint to contribute to the overall environmental health that will reduce air pollution.
7. Stay Close to Your Family. One common theme among those in the world who live the longest is their family attachments. Social bonds with family, just as friends, keeps you more likely to maintain healthy habits year-round.

The Harvard study appears in the March 23, 2010 issue of the open-access journal PLoS Medicine.

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