According to new research, if you adopt a few simple healthy practices by the time you reach middle age, you may be able to extend your life by years or even decades.
According to an observational study presented at the 2023 annual meeting o
f the American Society for Nutrition, which was held from July 22 to July 25 in Boston, lifestyle factors like getting enough exercise while avoiding risky behaviors like binge drinking and smoking have been linked to living up to 24 years longer.
Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data from more than 700,000 US veterans ages 40 to 90 to compare their lifestyle habits with health outcomes over time.
They identified eight major factors linked to longer, healthier lives among participants: getting enough exercise, following a healthy diet, managing stress, having strong social ties, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking, binge drinking, and opioid addiction.
The study estimated that men who began following these eight habits by age 40 could live an average of 24 years longer than men who didn’t follow any of the habits. For women, the habits were linked to an average lifespan increase of 21 years.
“We were really surprised by just how much could be gained with the adoption of one, two, three, or all eight lifestyle factors,” Xuan-Mai T. Nguyen, a health-science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs who is a rising fourth-year medical student at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, said. “The earlier, the better, but even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it still is beneficial.”
Exercise is a major factor in living a long, healthy life
A wealth of evidence has linked regular exercise to better health outcomes, including lower risk of major illnesses like heart disease and cancer, as well as a better mood.
Research suggests that aerobic, or cardio, exercise and resistance training — including lifting weights — is beneficial. And combining cardio exercise with weight training may be best for overall health, according to some studies.
You don’t have to work out for hours a day to benefit from exercise, either. Studies have shown you can improve your health with short exercise breaks throughout the day. And if you have a busy schedule, new evidence suggests that getting in a longer workout of up to two and a half hours on the weekend can boost your health, too.
A healthy diet helps to stave off disease over time
While the specifics of a healthy diet can vary based on personal preference, research consistently shows that the best health outcomes are linked to eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in nutrient-dense plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Plant foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, a carbohydrate crucial for healthy digestion.
Evidence also suggests that longevity-boosting diets include healthy fats like olive oil and fatty fish. Protein is a key nutrient for maintaining muscle mass and metabolic health. Good sources of protein include lean meats, seafood, dairy, and legumes. Eating patterns like the Blue Zones diet, which includes plenty of plant-based protein and fiber sources like beans, have been linked to a longer, healthier life.
Dietitians previously told Insider that no single food could make or break a healthy diet but that some foods might be best to eat in moderation for a longer life. Evidence suggests that consuming too much processed food high in added sugar, fat, and salt can be bad for our health.
Avoid smoking, opioid addiction, and binge drinking to live longer
Some habits can be detrimental to your long-term health, and consistent evidence shows that behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, and misuse of opioid drugs are risky.
Smoking continues to be a leading cause of preventable death in the US, according to the CDC, and quitting smoking has both long- and short-term health benefits.
Alcohol is similarly linked to a higher risk of serious conditions like cancer and heart disease. While some evidence suggests no amount of alcohol is safe, the riskiest form of consumption is binge drinking: having four or more servings of alcohol for women and five or more for men within two hours.
Opioid addiction, or dependence on drugs like prescription painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl, is linked to more than 60,000 deaths per year in the US from overdose alone, according to the CDC.
Cultivate strong relationships to boost your lifespan
A growing body of evidence suggests that loneliness can be a major risk factor for chronic disease as we age. And some studies suggest it’s just as risky as smoking or unhealthy eating.
Social connections can also have a positive effect on other lifestyle factors, such as helping you maintain a healthier diet, studies suggest. And a Harvard researcher previously told Insider that finding a community was one of the best ways to keep a consistent exercise routine.
Manage stress to reduce your risk of dying early
Stress can be another source of health problems, and while it’s tough to avoid entirely, there are ways to prevent it from derailing your life entirely.
Lifestyle habits such as meditation, journaling, breathwork, exercise, and positive social experiences can help reduce stress.
Get enough sleep to support healthy aging
Sleep may not be the most glamorous of longevity hacks, but there’s good evidence that getting enough sleep is crucial for optimal health. A good night of sleep — from seven to nine hours — can help support your immune system, repair daily damage to cells and muscle tissues, and boost your mood.
Routinely skimping on sleep can also disrupt other healthy habits, including causing you to eat more junk food.