5 simple habits tied to longer lifespans

As we age, many of us align our broad personal goals and aspirations toward living the best life possible. According to some new research in subjects who were at least 50 years old, adding as many as 14 additional years onto their average lifespan may be as easy as adopting a few simple health habits.

These findings come from reviews of a massive database of results from other scientific studies. The entire analysis was recently published in Circulation, the academic journal of the American Heart Association. It incorporated data from two large databases that together held 34 years of health information from more than 123,000 men and women. Authors of the Circulation study took these data points and filtered out all but five behaviors:

  • A healthy diet.
  • Abstinence from smoking.
  • Regular physical activity.
  • Moderate alcohol consumption.
  • Maintenance of a normal weight.

In the course of their analysis, the researchers found that subjects who adopted each of these five habits tended to live much longer than average. By their calculations, study authors estimated that a 50-year-old man who followed each of these guidelines could expect to live 12 years longer, on average, than a similar man who followed none of them. For women, the average benefit of these five factored was estimated to be an additional 14 years onto her lifespan.

Authors of the Circulation study even calculated an estimate for the average age a 50-year-old person adopting only some of these habits could expect to live until. Women who adopt just four of the five, for instance, were expected to live until 89, while those who adopted only two could expect to live 84 years. 

healthy habits

A few healthy habits, like regular exercise, were found to prolong life by an additional decade or more on average.

How to make a difference in your health

Of course, mathematical averages cannot predict individual outcomes - this study provides only a look at how a few basic factors seem to influence lifespan. Even more troubling was the rarity of ostensibly perfect subjects in the data analyzed by researchers. Only 2 percent of the 123,000 people whose information was included in the Circulation study actually had adopted all five of these healthy traits. Meanwhile, about one-third of the group had met the criteria for two or fewer of the healthy habits.

One promising note to come out of this study and those like it: Some of these highly influential health habits may be easier to adhere to than we think. For instance, the Circulation study defined people who practiced "regular physical activity" as those who performed at least 30 minutes of "moderate to vigorous physical activity" per day. What exactly that means may be much easier than you assume.

That's because another recent study published by the American Heart Association found that those 30 minutes of activity did not need to come all at once. In addition, the official definition of "moderate to vigorous" activity was clarified to include something as casual as brisk walking, and no more strenuous than jogging. In this AHA study, researchers found that even bouts as brief as two minute walks were enough to significantly reduce the risk of mortality, as long as they added up to 30 minutes per day on average.

These findings are somewhat contradictory to medical advice that had been prescribed in the U.S. for a long time. The New York Times noted that according to U.S. government-mandated physical education guidelines published in 2008, children and adults were supposed to focus on getting those daily 30 minutes through bouts of exercise lasting no less than 10 minutes. As it turns out, this advice seems more appropriate for improving aerobic endurance. But if the aim is to simply be healthier and live longer, the AHA argues, these 30 minutes of activity can be broken up throughout the day.

The guidelines on each of these five healthy habits should not be taken as a bare minimum goal for most, either. For instance, the AHA study concluded that just about any regular activity was correlated with a lower risk of death, but subjects who performed twice the daily activity (one hour per day on average) were found to reduce their risk of premature death by half. The same could likely be said for most of the other five healthy habits, as long as these goals are met with moderation and a person's individual health status in mind.