While numerous studies have looked at how individual habits (like tobacco smoking) may extend or shorten a person's life, far fewer have tried to quantify the benefits of practicing a number of healthy habits together, especially for people who begin only later in life. This was the focus of a study published in The American Journal of Medicine, conducted by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina's Department of Family Medicine.
The trial examined whether newly adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age could still produce significant benefits, in terms of lower risk of heart disease and reduced mortality.
Who Was Studied?
A group of 15,792 older men and women living in four different communities in the United States was tracked from 1987 to 1998, as part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Aged 45 to 64 years, the subjects were examined for their weight, height, dietary intake, smoking habits and exercise.
Defining a Healthy Lifestyle
Each subject's lifestyle was graded, depending on four primary behaviors:
- Eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day
- Exercising at least two and a half hours (150 minutes) each week
- Maintaining a healthy weight as measured by a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 18.5-30
- Not smoking
The researchers note they did not include moderate alcohol consumption because the study aimed to assess the effect of adopting new healthy habits, and beginning to drink in middle age is not widely recommended.
Poor Habits Get Better
Interestingly, at the beginning of the study, only 8.5 percent of the subjects were practicing all four healthy habits with consistency. After six years, an additional 970 people (or 8.4 percent of the study population) had adopted all four of the primary habits. The most common switch was to begin eating at least five fruits and vegetables each day. A regular exercise habit was the second most common behavior change.
Who Struggled the Most (or Least) to Launch Healthy Behaviors?
The researchers examined the "successful switchers" and concluded that the subjects most likely to change habits for the better were older, female, those with a college education, higher income and without a history of hypertension.
Subjects least likely to adopt the four primary habits were men, African-American, lower-income, those without a college education, and those with a history of either hypertension or diabetes.
What the Researchers Found
After four additional years of follow-up, the healthiest lifestyle switchers (those newly adopting the primary four habits by the study's six-year mark) enjoyed a 40 percent reduction in the risk of death from any cause and a 35 percent lower chance of having a cardiovascular event like heart attack or stroke relative to those practicing fewer than four healthy habits.
This was a much better outcome than for those achieving only three new healthy habits. They had a 25 percent lower mortality risk, but not a lower incidence of cardiovascular events during the same four-year follow-up period.
The beneficial results were independent of gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, and even previous history of illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension.
Dana King, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University and lead author of the study, says that even modest lifestyle changes begun in middle age can still reap real benefits.
"These are significant and measurable results," he said. "We've done other research on the declining health of baby boomers, and this study demonstrates how much good some healthy changes can do. It shows you can still improve your health status, even if you don't start working on your habits until quite late in life. Any or all can make a big difference; it's never too late."