Increase Your Healthspan By Adopting These 5 Lifestyle Habits

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Your healthspan can be improved with a diet high in vegetable and fruit consumption.

Americans are living longer than ever. Just a little over 100 years ago, our life expectancy hovered around 45 to 50 years old, while today an average person in the U.S. can expect to live to about 79, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Clearly, lifespan is increasing, but what about healthspan - those years we're healthy? Rather than focusing on years lived, researchers are starting to look at healthspan, because there's little value in living a long time if you're not also healthy.

What is happening along with our longer life expectancy is more time to live with age-related diseases. From heart disease to type 2 diabetes and beyond, being an older adult without at least one chronic disease is rare. Currently, statistics indicate that six out of 10 American adults have one chronic disease, while four out of 10 have two or more.

Although lifespan is stretching to 80 years or beyond, healthspan is approximately 63 years, based on the average onset of disease. This means many people are living 15 to 20 or more years while dealing with one or more chronic diseases. Most people would agree that living longer is only desired if those longer years are healthy, not riddled with disease and a lower quality of life - that's the aim of improving healthspan.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked at lifespan versus healthspan in two large cohorts. One studied women over a 34-year period and the other looked at data from men over 28 years. The researchers found that practicing five lifestyle factors led to an increase in healthspan:

  1. Healthy eating
  2. Regular exercise
  3. Maintaining a healthy weight
  4. Not smoking
  5. Limiting alcohol consumption.

The results were striking: Following these healthy lifestyle habits increased healthspan by 10 years in women and 7.6 years in men, compared to those who didn't follow any of those lifestyle factors.

At age 50, women who practiced up to four or five of these healthy lifestyle habits lived 34.4 more years free of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, while women who didn't practice any of these lifestyle habits lived only 23.7 more healthy years without disease, on average.

For men at age 50, those who ticked off four or five of the healthy habits had 31.1 more years on their healthspan, while those with no healthy habits had only 23.5 years disease-free.

Let's dive more into how these lifestyle habits can increase your healthspan.

1. Eating Healthy and Less Often

In the previously mentioned study in the BMJ, researchers used the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), a measure of how healthy a person's diet is. The AHEI gives a higher score for increasing intake of vegetables (especially dark leafy green vegetables), fruit, nuts, legumes, and fish while lowering intake of added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and refined grains. Higher scores on the AHEI have been linked to reductions in chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and dementia.

A similar style of eating is the Mediterranean diet, which places emphasis on vegetables, olive oil, legumes, nuts, fish, moderate consumption of red wine, and lower consumption of dairy and red meat. Several studies have shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with reductions in obesity and chronic diseases.

One thing that just about everybody agrees on is that vegetables are good for improving both healthspan and lifespan, especially dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower.

Almost as important as what you eat is when you eat. Time-restricted eating, intermittent fasting, and alternate-day fasting are all various ways that can limit the hourly windows in which we consume our meals. These styles of eating have been linked to reductions in inflammation and chronic diseases, as well as elongation of lifespan in animal models.

2. Regular Exercise

Exercise, like eating vegetables, is another no-brainer in terms of promoting good health. A lack of exercise has been linked to numerous chronic health diseases, including cardiovascular-related diseases, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes. Physical inactivity “results in substantial decreases in both total and quality years of life,” concluded that the authors of a 2012 review in Comprehensive Physiology.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of chronic diseases and improve brain health.

Physical activity is defined by the American Heart Association (AHA) as 30 minutes or more daily or moderate to vigorous physical activity. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to decrease your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and protect your brain from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Too many of us don't exercise, but we fear cognitive decline as we age. That fear can motivate you to do more physical activity to help increase your healthspan and overall quality of life by preventing this decline in cognition. Both aerobic exercise and strength training have been linked to brain-related improvements, like increased blood flow and increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for neural growth and maintenance.

There's no getting around it - regular exercise is necessary if you want to live a long and healthy life! If you're currently more on the sedentary side, just start off slow by increasing your daily walking and work your way up from there.

3. Maintaining a Healthy Weight

A healthy weight, which is defined as a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, is linked to a longer healthspan, given that obesity increases the risk of several chronic diseases.

In data from the Framingham Heart Study, people with a healthy BMI had increases in cardiovascular disease-free life expectancy by 3.1 and 2.9 years in men and women, respectively, compared to people with an overweight or obese BMI.

Research from the Lancet Public Health, a multi-cohort study of over 120,000 people, found that mild obesity (BMI of 30-35) was linked to the loss of 3 to 4 years of disease-free life. People with severe obesity (BMI>35) lost 7-8 years of disease-free life, compared to those with a healthy BMI.

4. Not Smoking

It's pretty well-known nowadays that smoking is bad for our health. However, if you're still a smoker, here are a couple more reasons to quit: Smoking cigarettes is responsible for one out of every four deaths from heart disease, and people who smoke lose approximately ten years off of their lives, as stated by the CDC.

Smoking is linked to numerous chronic diseases and can shorten both healthspan and lifespan.

If you're a smoker, you can still see many improvements to your health if you quit today. Although people who have never smoked do have longer healthspans, your risk of having a heart attack drops dramatically even just one year after you quit smoking.

5. Limited Alcohol Consumption

Although the Mediterranean-style diet does include red wine, the key is moderation. Light to moderate drinking typically entails one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men.

A large meta-analysis found that light to moderate alcohol consumption was linked to a reduction in the incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke. But before you run out and stock up on wine, know that alcohol consumption has also been linked to various cancers in a dose-response relationship - with higher alcohol intake associated with a greater risk.

What does this mean for you? When it comes to alcohol and your healthspan, your best bet is to limit consumption to one drink per day to experience the heart-healthy benefits but mitigate your risk of other alcohol-related conditions. But if you're not a drinker now, it's not recommended to start just for the potential cardiovascular benefits.

Your Takeaway: Five Ways to Increase Your Healthspan

  • Healthspan differs from lifespan in that we measure the healthy years lived disease-free, rather than just total years lived.
  • Eating a healthy diet with plenty of dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts, and legumes, while limiting sugar, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat have been linked to an increase in healthspan.
  • Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting or moderating alcohol consumption to one or fewer drinks per day for women, and two or fewer drinks per day for men also factor into increasing healthspan.
Show references

American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. American Heart Association Website. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults

Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Compr Physiol. 2012;2(2):1143–1211. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110025

Chronic Disease in America. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm

Cui MY, Lin Y, Sheng JY, Zhang X, Cui RJ. Exercise Intervention Associated with Cognitive Improvement in Alzheimer's Disease. Neural Plast. 2018;2018:9234105. Mar 11. doi:10.1155/2018/9234105

Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/index.htm

FastStats - Life Expectancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/life-expectancy.htm

Li Y, Schoufour J, Wang DD, et al. Healthy lifestyle and life expectancy free of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: prospective cohort study. BMJ. January 2020:l6669. doi:10.1136/bmj.l6669

Nusselder WJ, Franco OH, Peeters A, Mackenbach JP. Living healthier for longer: comparative effects of three heart-healthy behaviors on life expectancy with and without cardiovascular disease. BMC Public Health. 2009;9:487. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-48

Nyberg ST, Batty GD, Pentti J, et al. Obesity and loss of disease-free years owing to major non-communicable diseases: a multicohort study. Lancet Public Health. 2018;3(10):e490–e497. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30139-7

Ronksley PE, Brien SE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, Ghali WA. Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2011;342:d671. doi:10.1136/bmj.d671

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