Add a Decade to Your Life
It's tried-and-true advice - eat better, get some exercise, quit smoking, and you'll live longer. But how much longer? A new study shows you might just add a full decade - 10 years of good-quality living.
"Even making modest changes [in lifestyle] looks like it adds many years to your life," says Gary Fraser, MBChB, PhD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Loma Linda (Calif.) University. His study appears in the July 9 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
For the study -- which he began in 1976 - Fraser sent questionnaires to more than 34,000 men and women, all members of the California Seventh-Day Adventist Church and all over age 30. Each was asked numerous, detailed questions regarding medical history, weight and height, diet, level of physical activity, and smoking habits.
While physical disabilities preclude some respondents from getting more vigorous exercise, Fraser says, others seemed to avoid exercise. "We wanted to focus on the effects of choosing not to exercise," he says.
"Compared with other Californians, we found that Adventist men lived about 7.3 years longer and women lived about 4.4 years longer,"
says Fraser. "And for vegetarian Adventists who eat meat [no more than] once a month - which accounts for about 30% Adventists - the differences in life expectancy swell to 9.5 years in men and 6.1 years in women. Those are pretty big numbers."
It wasn't just diet that made the vegetarians so much healthier, Fraser says. "A vegetarian is much more than someone who doesn't eat meat," he points out. "They're much more likely to eat legumes, exercise a bit more, are more health conscious."
While other studies have focused on risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure, Fraser says his is the first to look at health behaviors - "things people can readily change."
Fraser's findings mirror similar studies conducted in Japan, says Bradley Willcox, MD, a fellow in gerontology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and in geriatric medicine at Harvard University, both in Boston. Wilcox is co-investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study and author of the book, The Okinawa Program.
"Our studies show that populations that follow what we describe as healthy behaviors do live profoundly longer -
up to 5 to 10 years longer than those who don't, and most of those years tend to be disability-free."
Fraser's study is more evidence attesting to "the power of lifestyle over
genetics, in our work, we've found that lifestyle accounts for about two-thirds of life expectancy; only one-third is due to genetics."
"Okinawans are very active, but they're not out pounding the pavement jogging," he says. "They do things they enjoy - walking, gardening. They also do karate and a traditional dance similar to Tai Chi, which gives them cardiovascular fitness as well as strength and better balance. All this keeps them lean, and leaner people get less cancer. It keeps bones dense, metabolism efficient, keeps them flexible, which is important for reducing risk of falls, a major cause of illness and death in older people."
While Fraser's study did not look at the impact of religion, Willcox says he considers spirituality - and having a support system - to be essential in a healthy lifestyle. "We look at it as four legs of a chair - diet, exercise, psychosocial factors, spirituality
- and each leg has to be in balance," he says.