7 healthy habits

Theoretically, they could add up to 17 extra years. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

For as long as we've been on this planet, people have tried to figure out how to stretch our time a bit longer.

We still don't have a fountain of youth, but UK scientists say they've figured out exactly how much longer your life will likely be, statistically speaking, if you adopt certain positive life habits.

Most of this won’t be surprising, but it is striking to see with some statistical certainty what each habit’s impact on your life will likely be.

Here's the research, the results, and the quantifiable insights.

600,000 people

Researchers combed through the health records of more than 600,000 people, correlating life expectancies and ultimate longevity with their genetic information and health habits.

Then, they compared each of the subjects' records with those of their parents.

The participants had been studied previously in more than 25 projects across Europe, Australia, and North America, and their data was included the UK Biobank, which is a major British study on the impacts of genetics and lifestyle choices on health. 

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications in 2017.

"The power of big data and genetics allow us to compare the effect of different behaviors and diseases in terms of months and years of life lost or gained, and to distinguish between mere association and causal effect," said co-author Jim Wilson, a professor at the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics in Edinburgh, Scotland.

So, what are the habits and how much time does each add to (or remove from) your life? Here are seven of them—plus a bonus from an earlier study.

1. Never starting smoking.

The number-one behavior that negatively impacts health? Smoking!

The life expectancy difference was very specific. On average, "smoking a pack a day reduces lifespan by seven years," said Peter Joshi, another of the study's co-authors, who is a tenured chancellor's fellow at the Usher Institute.  

2. Reducing cholesterol.

Here, the scientists examined the presence of a gene that leads to higher blood cholesterol levels.

People who had the gene had life spans of about eight months shorter than those who did not. While you can't help whether you have the gene or not, you can affect your cholesterol level with diet.

3. Losing weight.

Here, the researchers looked at overweight people who then managed to lose weight. The results are very specific. For every kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) lost, lifespan increased by two months.

So if you're like me, and you’ve been talking too long about losing those stubborn 20 pounds, you could add a year and a half to your life by actually doing so.

4. Quitting smoking.

If you currently smoke, you probably have enough people in your life telling you that you need to quit, but here's some extra motivation:

Regardless of what other health issues might linger after you smoke that last cigarette, the researchers said there is a point at which a former smoker can have quit long enough to offset those "seven lost years" (from No. 1 above) and regain the longevity of someone who never smoked.

5. Being open-minded and open to new experiences.

This is probably the least quantifiable habit that the researchers studied, but exhibiting "a personality trait reflecting curiosity vs. caution," according to the study, added longevity to people's lives.

(Whether the subjects of the study exhibited curiosity or caution was based on self-reported data from a questionnaire, according to the study authors.)

6. Gaining more education.

Here's one for lifelong learning: For each year spent studying past secondary school, people added 11 months to their lives.

It's an open question whether longevity is impacted by the experience of higher learning itself or the fact that, statistically, people with more education are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors (chief among them: smoking cigarettes).

7. Reducing your blood pressure.

Besides smoking, the second-most impactful factor on longevity that the researchers found was systolic blood pressure: high blood pressure has "causal life-shortening effects" of 5.2 years on average.

Controlling blood pressure is a matter of diet, exercise, and sometimes medication, so a variety of habits come into play here.  

Bonus: Engaging in high levels of physical activity.

In a separate study, researchers at Brigham Young University examined the daily exercise habits of 5,823 adults.

They found that those who engaged in physical activity (equivalent to at least 30-40 minutes of fast walking or jogging five days a week) had cells that mimicked the average "telomere lengths" of average people nine years younger.

(I wrote about this additional finding earlier this year, but it makes sense to include it here as well.)

To my mind, it's the cumulative effects of some or all of these habits taken together that is most striking—and perhaps enough to provide some extra motivation. 

For example, a college-educated (four years of college translates to 44 months of extra statistical longevity), non-smoking (seven years) person who keeps his or her cholesterol (eight months) and blood pressure (five years) under control—and who loses 10 extra pounds (nine months)—could add 17 years to his or her life, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% more time on the planet.

Call for comments: Convinced? Skeptical? And what other health habits have I missed?

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7 other things worth your time


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Shame on anyone GenX and older who doesn’t know this, but it’s a couple of screen shots from the classic John Belushi “Little Chocolate Donuts” sketch on SNL. I wrote about some of these habits on Inc.com back in the day. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.