Just How Much Can a Healthy Lifestyle Extend Your Life?

By Tom Heinbockel

The United States appears to do a fantastic job of prioritizing healthcare. In fact, 17.1% of our gross domestic product goes towards health care. That’s higher than every other country on Earth. But it turns out that Americans rank only 31st in the world for life expectancy. So, are we spending this money wisely? Well, new data suggest that life expectancy in the U.S. is most affected by simple things.

The Key Numbers…
In a recent study, researchers from Harvard’s school of public health looked at health records from a couple very large studies over the past few decades. The investigators identified 5 low-risk lifestyle factors that stood out as having the biggest impact on lifespan and healthspan (the period of life during which we are healthy and functional). These factors included:

  1. having never smoked;
  2. lower body weight (body mass index of 18.5-24.9 kg/m2);
  3. > 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day;
  4. moderate alcohol intake (0-1 drinks per day for women, 0-2 for men);
  5. high diet quality.

Basically, the researchers found that the more of these healthy lifestyle factors people in the study had, the more likely they were to live a long, healthy life. In fact, women with all 5 of these healthy lifestyle behaviors lived an average of 14 years longer than women with none. For men, having all 5 of those attributes meant 12.2 years longer lifespan.

Why Does This Matter?
In the U.S., cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes, etc.) and cancer are the most widespread of all health problems, but they may be preventable through healthy lifestyle behaviors. However, some would argue that instead of focusing our attention on preventing these conditions, we often focus on treating them once they’ve manifested. And this may be because only about 1% of Americans are actually willing to live the healthy lifestyle needed to prevent most western diseases. That’s right, only 1 out of 100 people you know actually do all 5 of those things we listed above!

What to Do with this Information.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a “perfect 5” to increase lifespan, healthspan, or quality of life. Even just one of these lifestyle factors can have a significant benefit on your well-being. If you had to pick only two to focus on, reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke and increasing your physical activity could have the greatest impact on your overall health. A person who smokes 25 or more cigarettes per day can expect to live about 9 and 12 years shorter (women and men) than someone who has never smoked cigarettes. And people who exercise 6 or more hours per week can expect to live about 7-8 years longer than those who do not exercise at all. In fact, increasing your levels of physical activity from 0 hours per week to 0.1-0.9 hours per week decreases your risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease by 30%. And researchers estimate that 75% of early cardiovascular disease deaths and 50% of early cancer deaths could be attributed to a lack of adherence to a healthy lifestyle. So, if you’re looking for ways to add a few extra, high-quality years to your life, cleaning up these facets of your lifestyle could help you achieve just that.


Tom Heinbockel is a graduate student in the Integrative Physiology of Aging Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.