4 Ways Lifestyle Habits Have Shifted Since the 1980s

Less smoking, more obesity

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Positive progress: we're getting more exercise. Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images

Healthy lifestyles have been proven to reduce your chances of an age-related illness like diabetes and heart disease, regardless of your family history.  Commonly cited best habits include not smoking, drinking only in moderation, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and eating five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

We don't do exactly what we've always done, however.

 Over the last three or four decades, lifestyle choices have been shifting in general, and not necessarily for the better.

According to a 2013 paper published in PLoS ONE, health data from the United Kingdom reveals that between 1979-2009:

  • Smoking declined
  • Consumption of fruits and vegetables increased
  • Obesity increased
  • Exercise declined

Studies based on the US National Health and Nutrition Examination survey (NHANES), including NHANES III (1988-1994) and the NHANES for 2007-2010 have found similar results. In a paper based on NHANES data, Dana King, chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University discovered that despite a widespread perception of overall prosperity and wellbeing, baby boomers are no healthier than the previous generation.  Greater stress, increasingly sedentary behaviour, and continued habits of smoking and drinking heavily were cited as the main reasons.

Even among members of health professions in both the US Health Professionals Study and the US Nurses Health Study, the proportion of subjects following all five of the healthiest lifestyle behaviours sat at a paltry 3%.

Likewise, researchers analyzing data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey (NPHS) conclude that increasing obesity is likely to counteract any benefits of improved education and income, along with declining tobacco use.

 The authors - from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and elsewhere - conclude that baby boomers are likely to age at the same rate as any previous generation.

Good news and bad news:  Certainly our understanding of health impact of certain habits - such as the longevity benefits of quitting smoking and how obesity increases the incidence of certain cancers and heart disease - is on the rise. What's lacking is consistently incorporating these healthy habits into our routines. Fortunately, just small actions do add up to improve our longevity outlook. Try these simple tips on how to sit less every day, get motivated for lifestyle change, and use techniques like mindfulness for better stress management.


Badley EM1, Canizares M, Perruccio AV, Hogg-Johnson S, Gignac MA. "Benefits gained, benefits lost: comparing baby boomers to other generations in a longitudinal cohort study of self-rated health." Milbank Q. 2015 Mar;93(1):40-72. doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12105.

Dana E King, Eric Matheson, Svetlana Chirina, Anoop Shankar, Jordan Browman-Fulks. "The Status of Baby Boomers' Health in the United States: The Healthiest Generation?" JAMA Intern Med March 11, 2013, Vol 173, No. 5

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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