Proven Ways to Extend Your Health Span

Older woman exercising at beach

When it comes to health span – the period in our life where we live healthy – not everything is in our hands. First, no one lives forever – and most of us will die from or with a chronic condition. Genetics also play a big role in our longevity and risk for chronic conditions.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have an influence. Research now points to certain healthy lifestyle choices that can add years to your life and life to your years. While you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you’re younger when you start – say in your 40s – these choices can also help you extend your healthy life if you’re in your 50s, 60s and beyond.

The Big Eight

An array of research already shows certain lifestyle choices like eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise can help us live more healthfully.

Now a longitudinal study called the Million Veteran Program (MVP), which investigates the health, wellness and habits of more than 700,000 veterans, has been able to prioritize eight specific lifestyle behaviors that most extend healthspan and the specific years they add.

The study, reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has notable strengths. Senior author and leading nutrition researcher Walter Willet, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, points to its highly diverse population by gender, ethnicity, race and socioeconomics. Researchers also emphasize that despite military experience and training, the general population can achieve the same results.

These lifestyle behaviors are ranked in importance to their impact on health span:

Get exercise.

Exercise is key to longevity. Hundreds of studies show that exercising regularly brings health benefits, especially versus sitting still. Specifically, the MVP study found that compared to participants who did not exercise, those who did experienced a 46% decrease in the risk of death.

Specifically, those who lived longer exercised for the equivalent of  7.5 metabolic hours a week – an energy-burning measurement equivalent to 150 minutes weekly of moderate exercise. The study even showed that doing light exercise still had benefits when compared to no exercise.

Avoid drug addictions.

In particular, avoid opioid addictions. This may sound like surprising advice, but opioid addiction has become a major cause of premature death in America — responsible for up to 15 percent of the decline in longevity in the U.S. And it’s not just the young who are affected by the pain drug’s toll. A 2019 study found that 25% of patients 50 and older misuse prescription opioids.

Opioids decrease our body’s production of endorphins, which then requires higher doses of opioids to produce the same pain relief. This is known as tolerance. MVP found that not being addicted to opioids decreased early death risk by 38%.

Don’t use tobacco.

We’ve known for a long time the impact of smoking on lifespan and on health span. Smoking causes 30 percent of all cancer deaths in America. The MVP study confirmed that never using tobacco reduces risk of death by 29%.

People who quit tobacco benefit substantially from increased health span – though not as much as those who never start.

Keep your stress under control.

Recent figures show 75% of American adults in some way feel stress – the silent killer that can cause inflammation, reduce our immune system’s efficacy and is a major contributor to death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. The MVP found managing stress reduces premature death by 22%.

Eat a plant-based diet.

Like exercise, healthy eating is an important key to health span. It can keep weight off while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Particularly, diets rich in vegetables and fruits are key. The MVP study shows this increases a healthy life by 21%. You don’t have to become a vegan to follow a plant-focused diet. Just make sure your meals are filled with lots of leafy greens, legumes, whole grains and nuts. Diets similar to the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes these elements along with lean, healthy proteins, are linked to longer health spans.

Avoid binge drinking – and maybe alcohol altogether.

Defined as drinking four or more alcoholic beverages in one short period of time, binge drinking has a huge impact on our health span. The MVP study researchers say that avoiding binge drinking can reduce death risk by 19%.

Other studies show that binge drinking is becoming a problem among older adults, and even moderate drinkers who are alcohol-free during the week but binge on weekends are harming their health span.

Studies also show that drinking alcohol has almost no upsides -- but plenty of downsides.  

Get your Zs.

Numerous studies link lack of quality sleep to a greater risk of poor health and death. Sleep helps us heal and rejuvenate. And it’s key to health span. The MVP study found that sleeping seven to nine hours can result in an 18% decrease in dying from any cause.

Pursue positive social relationships.

It may seem a small bump but being social increased health span by 5%, according to the MVP study. The study leads say every little boost to healthspan helps, especially when we’re experiencing rampant levels of loneliness. It’s of such national concern to be the topic of a 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

What this means in terms of years added to healthspan

MVP researchers say if you haven’t always followed these lifestyle behaviors, there’s still benefit to making these changes in your 40s, 50s and 60s — and beyond.

Study lead author Xuan-Mai Nguyen, a health science specialist for at the VA Boston Healthcare System, says a 40-year-old man can add 4.5 years to his life by adding just one healthy behavior; two adds 7 years and three adds 8.6. Incorporating all eight, either gradually or all at once, adds 24 years.

For women, adding the eight healthy behaviors adds 22.6 more years; just one increases healthspan 3.5 years; two adds 8 years; and three adds 12.6.

One key to success is having a strong relationship with your primary care physician. They can work in partnership with you to incorporate and track healthy behavior changes that can add healthy years to your life.

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