Combining Healthy Strategies

Healthy lifestyle choices had greater impact in greater numbers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) We know we are supposed to make healthy lifestyle choices. But how much of an effect do choices like diet, exercise and non-smoking really have on our lifespan?

A large study of older Americans found that those who made certain healthy lifestyle choices had a reduced risk of death — and the greater number of healthy choices, the better.

"Try to exercise several times a week."

The study was led by Gundula Behrens, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the Regensburg University Medical Center in Regensburg, Germany.

Dr. Behrens and team examined 170,672 American participants who were between ages 51 and 71 (with an average age of 62.5) when they enrolled in the study in 1996 and 1997.

The participants, who were members of the AARP (formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons) were followed up until 2009, around 12.5 years later. At this time, their average age was 75 years old. 

Throughout the course of the study, 20,903 deaths occurred.

Four main areas were explored: belly fat, physical activity, smoking and healthy eating. The authors noted that their aim was to study the joint effect of healthy choices in these areas. 

Participants were considered to have abdominal leanness if they had a waist measurement of less than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men. Recommended physical activity level was set at 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week.

Participants were considered long-term non-smokers if they had never smoked or had quit over ten years prior. And for this study, a healthy diet was based on the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains and fish, while limiting red or processed meat.

Two percent of the participants did not have follow of these healthy lifestyle factors, while 20 percent followed all four. 

After analyzing the data, the authors found that each of the individual lifestyle factors examined (abdominal leanness, physical activity, non-smoking and healthy diet) were associated with lower risk of death. 

The authors also found that the participants had a greater reduction in risk of death with the greater number of healthy lifestyle factors they participated in. 

The individual factors of abdominal leanness, physical activity and healthy diet all appeared to be associated with around a 14 percent reduction in risk of death.

Long-term non-smoking seemed to play a bigger role, showing a 57 percent reduced risk of death.

"We found that joint adherence to abdominal leanness, physical activity, and a healthy diet could have prevented 18 percent of deaths, whereas long-term non-smoking alone could have prevented 20 percent of deaths in our cohort," the authors estimated.

"We estimate that 33 percent of deaths in our cohort were premature and could have been avoided if all study participants had adhered to all low-risk factors," the authors concluded. 

Rusty Gregory, MS, a Certified Wellness Coach in Austin, Texas, did not find the results of this study surprising.

"The majority of the chronic illnesses that we see today would be eradicated if we would take responsibility for our lifestyle choices," Gregory told dailyRx News.

"By exercising regularly, eating a diet full of meat, fruits and vegetables, a diet low in sugar and not smoking, we would greatly reduce our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. We would also see thinner waist lines, more energy and greater self-confidence in the population around us," said Gregory.

It is important to note that the lifestyle data in this study was self-reported by participants, which may have allowed for some bias.

The study was published in the May 2013 issue of the European Journal of Epidemiology. No conflicts of interest were reported. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 10, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013