To live a long life, start building healthy habits by middle age, new research suggests.
Getting enough exercise, sleep, social connections, and healthy food can stave off early death.
It’s also the best for managing stress, and avoiding binge drinking, smoking, and opioid addiction.
You may be able to add years or even decades onto your lifespan by following some basic healthy habits by middle age, new research suggests.
Lifestyle factors like getting enough exercise while avoiding risky behaviors like binge drinking and smoking are linked to living up to 24 years longer, according to an observational study presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held July 22–25 in Boston.
Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health looked at data from over 700,000 US veterans aged 40 to 90 to compare their lifestyle habits with health outcomes over time.
They found that there were eight major factors linked to longer, healthier lives among participants: getting enough exercise, following a healthy diet, managing stress, having strong social ties, sleeping enough, and avoiding smoking, binge drinking, and opioid addiction.
According to the data, men who started following all eight habits by age 40 could live an average of 24 years longer than men who didn’t follow any of the habits. For women, the habits were linked to a lifespan increase of 21 years, on average.
“We were really surprised by just how much could be gained with the adoption of one, two, three, or all eight lifestyle factors,” said Xuan-Mai T. Nguyen, health science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs and rising fourth-year medical student at Carle Illinois College of Medicine. “The earlier the better, but even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it is still beneficial.”
Exercise is a major factor in living a long, healthy life
A wealth of evidence has linked regular exercise to better health outcomes, including lower risk of major illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, as well as better mental health.
Both aerobic (cardio) exercise and resistance training such as lifting weights are beneficial, research suggests. And doing both cardio and weight training may be best for overall health, according to some studies.
You don’t have to work out for hours a day to benefit from exercise, either. Studies have shown you can improve your health in short exercise breaks throughout the day. And if you have a busy schedule, new evidence suggests that getting a longer workout (up to two and a half hours) on the weekend can boost your health, too.
A healthy diet helps to stave off disease over time
While the specifics of a healthy diet can vary based on personal preference, research consistently shows that the best health outcomes are linked to eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet, rich in nutrient-dense plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Plant foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, a type of carbohydrate crucial for healthy digestion.
Evidence also suggests that longevity-boosting diets also include healthy fats like olive oil and fatty fish. Protein is a key nutrition for maintaining muscle mass and metabolic health. Good sources of protein include lean meats, seafood, dairy and legumes. Eating patterns like the Blue Zones diet that includes plenty of plant-based protein and fiber sources like beans are linked to a longer, healthier life.
Dietitians have previously told Insider that no single food can make or break a healthy diet, but some foods may be best to eat in moderation for a longer life. Evidence suggests that consuming too much processed food with high added sugar, fat and salt can be bad for our health.
Avoid smoking, opioid addiction, and binge drinking to live longer
Some habits can be detrimental to your long-term health, with consistent evidence showing that behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, and misuse of opioid drugs are risky.
Smoking continues to be a leading cause of preventable death in the US, according to the CDC, and quitting smoking has both long and short term health benefits.
Alcohol is similarly linked to a higher risk of serious conditions such as cancer and heart disease. While some evidence suggests no amount of alcohol is safe, the riskiest form of consumption is binge drinking: having four or more servings of alcohol for women, five or more for men, in the span of two hours or less.
Opioid addiction, or dependence on drugs such as prescription painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl, is linked to more than 60,000 deaths per year in the US from overdose alone, according to the CDC.
Cultivate strong relationships to increase your lifespan
A growing body of evidence suggests that loneliness can be a major risk factor for chronic disease as we age, with some studies suggesting it’s just as risky as smoking or unhealthy eating.
Social connections can also have a positive effect on other lifestyle factors, such as helping you maintain a healthier diet, studies suggest. And finding a community is one of the best ways to maintain a consistent exercise routine, a Harvard researcher previously told Insider.
Manage stress to reduce your risk of dying early
Stress can be another insidious source of health problems and while it’s tough to avoid entirely, there are ways to prevent it from derailing your life entirely.
Habits like meditation, journaling, and breathwork can help reduce stress, as can other lifestyle factors on this list, such as exercise and positive social experiences.
Get enough sleep to support healthy aging
Sleep may not be the most glamorous of longevity hacks, but there’s good evidence that getting enough sleep is crucial for optimal health. A good night of sleep (between seven to nine hours) can help support your immune system, repair daily damage to cells and muscles, and boost your mental health.
Routinely skimping on sleep can also disrupt other healthy habits, for example, causing you to potentially eat more junk food.
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