It's no secret that avoiding smoking, drinking moderately, eating nutritious food, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight all contribute to reducing the risks of diseases and maintaining overall well-being.
But new research from Harvard University, published this week in the journal Circulation, suggests these five habits have a dramatic effect on life-expectancy.
"When we embarked on this study, I thought, of course, that people who adopted these habits would live longer. But the surprising thing was how huge the effect was," Dr. Meir Stampfer, a co-author of the study and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told The Guardian.
The team of researchers analyzed about 30 years of medical records and lifestyle questionnaires from 123,000 volunteers for the study. When examining life expectancy, they noticed a dramatic correlation with the five healthy habits. Compared to those who disregarded all of the habits, individuals who didn't smoke, drank only moderately, ate nutritious food, exercised regularly and maintained a healthy weight lived significantly longer.
Among women, the average life expectancy was 14 years longer, and among men, it was 12 years longer. Furthermore, men and women who adhered to all five habits were 65 percent less likely to die of cancer and 82 percent less likely to die of heart disease compared to the least healthy participants.
Assistant professor of medicine at Emory University Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, who was not involved in the research, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the study is "compelling" and "comprehensive".
"Heart disease, cancer, and premature death are some of the most feared health conditions in this country. And according to this study, avoiding them is mostly in our control," Bergquist said. "It is also alarming that only 8 percent of the people in this study followed the five healthy habits," she said.
While she lauded the research, explaining that the results aligned with previous studies that examined the effects of lifestyle and the risk of developing chronic diseases, she noted a few potential limitations.
"The participants in this study were mostly white health professionals. This limits the ability to generalize the results to ethnic and racial groups," Bergquist said. And while self-reported data can affect accuracy, participants in this study were asked to give regular detailed information over a long period of time, making it more reliable.
"Another limitation is the understandable inability to fully account for all the background medical treatments that participants may have been receiving, which may also have affected the results," she added.
Despite these limitations, Bergquist says the study is an important notice to society.
"This study is a wake-up call for the future of healthcare in our nation. Despite our high-tech medical system, the most fundamental determinants of our health are our diet and lifestyle," she said. "Not only do each of us need to do our share to take control over our food decisions and habits, but as a society, we also need to make healthy choices easier."