We’re living longer than ever, but that doesn’t mean we’re healthier. How do we balance this newfound longevity with long-term wellness? What can we really do to maximize our quality of life and age gracefully and healthfully?
A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that four key behaviors have a significant impact on healthy aging.
Researchers defined healthy aging as being able to function well physically and cognitively: maintaining mobility, having good lung function, having no chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, or diabetes, having no disabilities at age 60 or older, and being in good mental health.
By contrast, normal aging was defined as participants who, at end of the study, suffered from chronic disease, had diminished cognitive function and mental health, or both.
So what are the four keys to healthy aging?
1. Don’t Smoke
2. Consume Alcohol in Moderation
3. Be Physically Active
4. Increase Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables
Researchers studied a cohort of 5,100 British civil servants, men and women between the ages of 42-63. Their lifestyle patterns were followed over the course of 16 years, and the results revealed an association between participation in healthy activities and the odds of successful aging.
Almost 5% of participants engaged in none of the four healthy behaviors, 18.3% engaged in one, 33.8% practiced two, 31.3% performed three, and 11.8% practiced all four.
As the number of healthy behaviors increased, so did the occurrence of good physical, respiratory, cognitive, and mental function. At the same time, and the likelihood of developing a chronic disease, disability, or mental health diminished. By the end of the follow-up period, those who practiced all four behaviors were nearly three times less likely to develop these issues.
The successful agers tended to be younger than the normally aging individuals, with an average age of 49.7 versus 51.3; more were also married (81% vs. 78%) and had higher education (32% vs. 24%).
Of the more than 5,000 participants, 549 individuals were deceased by the end of the study (10.8%). Just 953 participants or almost 20% were identified as aging successfully, while the remaining individuals (70.5%) were classified as aging normally.
Study authors note, “Our study shows the cumulative impact of healthy behaviors on successful aging – the greater the number of healthy behaviors, the greater the benefit…results should motivate lifestyle changes that not only reduce mortality and morbidity, but also improve quality of life at older ages.”
The Bottom Line
As this study reinforces, to increase our quality of life and age healthfully, we need to practice as many healthy behaviors as possible. The conclusion is similar to that reached from a large European study (EPIC) where they also found four healthy lifestyle factors had a strong impact on the prevention of chronic disease.
Too often, we focus on individual health behaviors. Countless studies have been conducted expounding the benefits of quitting smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, exercising regularly, and eating more fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, this causes us to look at these behaviors separately instead of collectively.
It seems like common sense that healthy behaviors can work together to augment their effects, but as the first of its kind to study this “combination effect,” this study offers quantified proof. So while the study may have focused on people in their mid-to-later years, the results are a strong argument for embracing healthy lifestyle behaviors at an early age.