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March 25, 2020

By: Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributor

How is it that the United States spends the most money on healthcare, and yet still has the one of the lowest life expectancies of all developed nations? (To be specific: $9,400 per capita, 77 years, and we are ranked 31st in the world.) Maybe those of us in healthcare have been looking at it all wrong, for too long. Healthy lifestyle and longevity Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a massive study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy, using data from the well-known Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). This means that they had data on a huge number of people over a very long period of time. The NHS included over 78,000 women and followed them from 1980 to 2014. The HPFS included over 40,000 men and followed them from 1986 to 2014. This is over 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men. The researchers looked at NHS and HPFS data on diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption that had been collected from regularly administered, validated questionnaires. What is a healthy lifestyle, exactly? These five areas were chosen because prior studies have shown them to have a large impact on risk of premature death. Here is how these healthy habits were defined and measured:
1. DIET, which was calculated and rated based on the reported intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.

2. EXERCISE, which was measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity daily.

3.HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT, defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), which is between 18.5 and 24.9.

4. SMOKING, well, there is no healthy amount of smoking. “Healthy” here meant never smoking.

5. MODERATE ALCOHOL INTAKE, which was measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.


Functional Medicine has added 2 additional Lifestyle issues



These two are not a part of the original Harvard Study


Does a healthy lifestyle make a difference? As it turns out, healthy habits make a big difference. According to this analysis, people who met criteria for all five habits enjoyed significantly, impressively longer lives than those who had none: 14 years for women and 12 years for men (if they had these habits at age 50). People who had none of these habits were far more likely to die prematurely from cancer or cardiovascular disease. Study investigators also calculated life expectancy by how many of these five healthy habits people had. Just one healthy habit (and it didn’t matter which one) … just one… extended life expectancy by two years in men and women. Not surprisingly, the more healthy habits people had, the longer their lifespan. This is one of those situations where I wish I could reprint their graphs for you, because they’re so cool. (But if you’re very curious, the article is available online, and the graphs are on page 7. Check out Graph B, “Estimated life expectancy at age 50 according to the number of low-risk factors.”) This is huge. And, it confirms prior similar research — a lot of prior similar research. A 2017 study using data from the Health and Retirement Study found that people 50 and older who were normal weight, had never smoked, and drank alcohol in moderation lived on average seven years longer. A 2012 mega-analysis of 15 international studies that included over 500,000 participants found that over half of premature deaths were due to unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, inactivity, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking. And the list of supporting research goes on. So what’s our (big) problem? As the authors of this study point out, in the US we tend to spend outlandishly on developing fancy drugs and other treatments for diseases, rather than on trying to prevent them. This is a big problem. Experts have suggested that the best way to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle change is at the large-scale, population level, through public health efforts and policy changes. (Kind of like motorcycle helmets and seat belt legislation…) There’s a lot of pushback from big industry on that, of course. If we have guidelines and laws helping us to live healthier, big companies aren’t going to sell as much fast food, chips, and soda. And for companies hell-bent on making money at the cost of human life, well, that makes them very angry.


  • Impact of healthy lifestyle factors on life expectancies in the US population. Circulation, April 2018.
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, What is a standard drink?
  • The population health benefits of a healthy lifestyle: Life expectancy increased and onset of disability delayed. Health Affairs, August 2017. – The combined effects of healthy lifestyle behaviors on all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine, September 2012.
  • Changing minds about changing behavior. Lancet, January 2018.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Final Determination regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (trans fat)
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act- An Overview

Here is the evaluation of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Scientists Calculated How Much Longer You Can Live With a Healthy Lifestyle


Study after study reminds us that as challenging as it can be, sticking to healthy habits – eating right, exercising regularly, lowering inflammation, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling how much alcohol you drink – can help us to live longer. But tacking on extra years isn’t so appealing if some or most of them are riddled with heart disease, diabetes or cancer. In a 2018 study, an international group of researchers led by scientists at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that adopting five healthy habits could extend life expectancy by 14 years for women and by 12 years for men. • Eating a diet high in plants and low in fats • Exercising at a moderate to vigorous level for several hours a week • Maintaining a healthy body weight • Not smoking • Consuming no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men

To follow up on that data, the researchers wanted to know how many of those added years were healthy, and free of three common chronic diseases: Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. And in a study published on Jan. 8 in BMI, they report that a healthy lifestyle can indeed contribute to more – and more disease-free – Years of life. The results suggest that women can extend their disease-free life expectancy after age 50 by about 10 years, and men can add about eight years more, than people who don’t have these habits “It’s important to look at disease-free life expectancy because that has important implication in terms of improving quality of life and reducing overall health care costs.” Says Dr Frank Hu, Chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the paper. “Extending lifespan is not sufficient, we want to extend health span, so the longer life expectancy is healthy and free of major chronic diseases and disabilities associated with those disease.” To figure out those patterns, the researchers analyzed data collected from more that 111,000 US women and men who were between the ages of 30 – 75 when they enrolled in the Nurses Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study beginning in 1980 and 1986, respectively. The participants answered questionnaires, on their answers, each participant was given a lifestyle score from 0-5, with higher scores representing. Better adherence to health guide lines. The researchers then attempted to correlate these scores to how long the participants lived without heart disease, cancer or diabetes. Women who reported satisfying four or five of the healthy habits lived on average 34 years without those diseases after age 50 compared to 24 years for women who said they did not follow any of the healthy habits. Men who reported fulfilling four or five of the lifestyle habits lived on average 31 more years free of disease after age of 50 while those who adopted none of them lived on average 23 more hears after age 50. Hu says that none of the five factors stood out as more important than the others; the benefits in saving people from disease and in extending life were similar across all five. Further, the number of years of disease-free life gained increased with each additional healthy habit people followed. “People shouldn’t be discouraged from adopting them if they find one or two factors difficult to follow.” Says Hu. Because all of the participants in the study were over age 30, the findings also suggest that “it’s never too late to change.” Hu says, “It’s always better to adopt healthy lifestyle habits as early as possible, but even adopting them relatively late in life is still going to have substantial health benefits later on.”


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