Study: Slow Down Aging With These 5 Lifestyle Habits

Healthy behaviours helped the men who were able to stick with them

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When was the last time your doctor asked how many servings of fruits and vegetables you eat regularly?  It's not a routine question during most medical visits, but research out of the United Kingdom reveals that it addresses just one of a short list of lifestyle factors that can make an enormous difference to your quality of life as you age - regardless of your family history of disease.

    In "research-speak", it's referred to as compression of morbidity; in other words, delaying the onset of illness and disability for as long as possible.  Think of it as improving the chances of limiting your old and ill years - when you might be struck by age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes - to only a brief period at the very end of your life, if at all.

    The Caerphilly Cohort Study:  Back in 1979, a group of more than 2,200 older men from a small town in South Wales in the UK were recruited to be part of a longitudinal study.  The subject base represented almost 90% of the male townsfolk within the age range of 45-59 years.  Officially known as the Caerphilly Prospective Study, or CaPS, the study was launched by researchers from the University of Bristol. Initially established to monitor the role of various metabolic and hormonal factors in the development of ischemic heart disease, the research was subsequently broadened to examine lifestyle and the risk of stroke, hearing problems and dementia.

    A short list of 5 instructions:  In a nutshell, the men were asked to adhere to five key aspects of a healthy lifestyle for the next three decades and beyond:

    • Don't smoke
    • Avoid obesity (keep BMI between 18-25)
    • Eat up to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
    • Be regularly physically active (e.g. walk two or more miles to work each day, cycle ten or more miles to work each day, or get vigorous exercise regularly)
    • Drink only in moderation (three or fewer drinks each day)

    Interestingly, complete abstinence from drinking was not considered by the researchers to be a healthy behaviour, since there is evidence that light to moderate consumption of alcohol - including not just wine, but beer and hard liquor - is better for your longevity than teetotaling.

    The men and their families were examined and questioned in detail at the beginning of the study, and followup surveys and exams were conducted about every five years.  Ten years after the launch of the research, when the men were between the ages of 55-69, screening for cognition and dementia symptoms was introduced. Followup cognitive impairment testing occurred in 2004, when the subjects were all between 70 and 85 years of age.

    Weak adherence to the healthy habits:  Over time, 2,235 men were tracked closely.  The subjects were scored according to whether they followed none, one, two, three, four, or five healthy behaviours.

    The majority of subjects did adhere to at least a few of the guidelines, but only two men (0.1%) followed all five healthy habits.  Only 111 men (5%) followed four of the five habits.

    So few of the men (15 out of 2,235) ate five servings of fruits and vegetables each day that the researchers opted to change the criteria in this category to only three daily servings instead.  Less than half of the men were non-smokers, and only about a third were active regularly.

    Lessons learned after three decades:  After more than thirty years, the men who adhered to the most prescribed habits were significantly healthier than the men following fewer guidelines. Writing in 2013 in the journal PLoS One, Professor Peter Elwood and his team found that among the subjects following at least four of the habits compared with those who followed none, there was a:

    • 50% reduction in diabetes
    • 50% reduction in cardiovascular disease
    • 60% reduction in cognitive impairment and dementia
    • 60% reduction in all-cause mortality (death from any cause)

    The researchers note that similar results have been found in other large longitudinal investigations such as the US Health Professionals Follow-Up and the US Nurses' Health studies.

    Little reduction in cancer risk?  One surprising finding which conflicts with previous research was that cancer incidence was only affected by whether the subjects smoked, and not the other habits such as regular exercise or limited alcohol consumption. Indeed, there's a substantial body of evidence showing that cancer risk increases with greater obesity, and that eating more fresh produce appears to keeps cancer and other diseases at bay.

    Illness and disability delayed:  Overall, not only was disease avoided by the men who followed the most simple habits, but it took longer for diseases in general to set in.  In fact, heart disease was estimated to be postponed for up to 12 years - and death for up to 6 years - among the 113 men consistently scoring at least four out of five habits.

    Bottom line:  Once again, this long-term research suggests that daily, incremental actions in key areas add up to a significantly lower risk of disease and disability, including brain aging and dementia.

    While you may have no control over your genetic makeup, you can improve your disease risk and turn back your biological clock by taking steps to avoid smoking, eat a varied diet in moderation, maintain a healthy weight, reduce stress through practices like mindfulness meditation, and stay engaged within your community through contact with friends and activities like volunteering. Even better, tackling lifestyle changes in middle age will still make a big difference. There's much you can control when it comes to healthy aging.

    Build Solid Habits for Better Longevity


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

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

    Elwood P, Galante J, Pickering J, Palmer S, Bayer A, Healthy Lifestyles Reduce the Incidence of Chronic Diseases and Dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly Cohort Study Elwood P, Galante J, Pickering J, Palmer S, Bayer A, Ben-Shlomo, Yoav, Longley, Marcus and Gallacher, John. "Healthy Lifestyles Reduce the Incidence of Chronic Diseases and Dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly Cohort Study." 2013. PLoS ONE 8(12): e81877. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081877

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