Is It Ever Too Late to Start Healthy Habits?

Boosting Your Longevity Later in Life

mature couple exercising outdoors
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Do you ever worry you've waited too long to adopt an anti-aging lifestyle? Don't! Research shows that starting to eat well, exercise regularly and quit smoking as healthy habits can still have a significant effect on your health and longevity — even if you don't begin until after the age of 50.

While numerous studies have looked at how individual habits (like tobacco smoking) may extend or shorten a person's life, far fewer have tried to quantify the benefits of practicing a number of healthy habits together, especially for people who begin only later in life.

This was the focus of a 2007 study published in The American Journal of Medicine, conducted by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina's Department of Family Medicine.

The trial examined whether newly adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age could still produce significant benefits, in terms of lower risk of heart disease and reduced mortality.

Who Was Studied?

A group of 15,792 older men and women living in four different communities in the United States was tracked from 1987 to 1998, as part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Aged 45 to 64 years, the subjects were examined for their weight, height, dietary intake, smoking habits and exercise.

Defining a Healthy Lifestyle

Each subject's lifestyle was graded, depending on four primary behaviors:

  • Eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Exercising at least 2.5 hours (150 minutes) each week
  • Maintaining a healthy weight as measured by a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 18.5 - 30
  • Not smoking

The researchers note they did not include moderate alcohol consumption, because the study aimed to assess the effect of adopting new healthy habits, and beginning to drink in middle age is not widely recommended.

Poor Habits Get Better:

Interestingly, at the beginning of the study only 8.5% of the subjects were practicing all four healthy habits with consistency.

After 6 years, an additional 970 people (or 8.4% of the study population) had adopted all four of the primary habits. The most common switch was to begin eating at least 5 fruits and vegetables each day. A regular exercise habit was the second most common behavior change.

Who Struggled the Most (or Least) to Launch Healthy Behaviors?

The researchers examined the "successful switchers", and concluded that the subjects most likely to change habits for the better were older, female, those with a college education, higher income and without a history of hypertension.

Subjects least likely to adopt the four primary habits were men, African-American, lower income, those without a college education, and those with a history of either hypertension or diabetes.

What the Researchers Found

After four additional years of followup, the healthiest lifestyle switchers (those newly adopting the primary 4 habits by the study's 6-year mark) enjoyed a 40% reduction in the risk of death from any cause, and a 35% lower chance of having a cardiovascular event like heart attack or stroke relative to those practicing fewer than four healthy habits.

This was a much better outcome than for those achieving only 3 new healthy habits: they had a 25% lower mortality risk, but not a lower incidence of cardiovascular events during the same 4-year followup period.

The beneficial results were independent of gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, and even previous history of illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension.

Dana King, currently Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University and lead author of the study, says that even modest lifestyle changes begun in middle age can still reap real benefits.

"These are significant and measurable results," he tells me. "We've done other research on the declining health of baby boomers, and this study demonstrates how much good some healthy changes can do. It shows you can still improve your health status, even if you don't start working on your habits until quite late in life. Any or all can make a big difference; it's never too late."


5 Ways You Can Make Health Last. Healthy Living Features: Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation Public Information Sheet. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Dana E King, Arch G Mainous, Mark E Geesey. "Turning Back the Clock: Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle in Middle Age." American Journal of Medicine (2007) 120, 598-603. Interview with Dana King conducted

Dana E King, Eric Matheson, Svetlana Chirina, Anoop Shankar, Jordan Browman-Fulks. "Overall Health Status of Baby Boomers Appears Lower Than Previous Generation." JAMA Intern Med Published online February 4, 2013.

Eliza F Chakravarty, Helen B Hubert, Eswar Krishnan, Bonnie B Bruce, Vijaya B Lingala, and James F Fries. "Lifestyle Risk Factors Predict Disability and Death in Healthy Aging Adults." American Journal of Medicine 2012 February; 125(2):190-197.

Good Health Habits at Age 60 and Beyond. American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) Public Information Sheet. Accessed September 20, 2013.

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