Simple changes can boost chances for living healthier, longer

By American Heart Association News

Older couple walking.
(shapecharge, Getty Images)

If you want to live longer, some simple healthy steps may help you do it.

Americans' life expectancies are shorter compared with almost all other high-income nations.

"This divergent trend is very alarming," said Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose research team examined five specific lifestyle factors linked to longevity.

Those who adopted all five had a life expectancy at age 50 of 14 years longer for women and 12 years longer for men than those who adopted none of the healthy steps, according to the 2018 study in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation. (Average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years, according to the latest statistics.)

To improve your chances of living to an older age, employ the five healthy habits highlighted in the study.

1. Regular physical activity.

The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity.

You can also do a combination of the two.

It's best to spread the activity throughout the week and add in muscle-strengthening activity.

Being physically active doesn't have to mean long-distance running or intense gym workouts every day, Hu noted.

Consider brisk walking, tennis, bicycling, swimming laps or even dancing.

2. Appropriate body weight.

Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and premature death.

The Circulation study suggested maintaining a body mass index of 18.5 to 24.9.

A health care provider can offer medical guidance, and you can estimate your BMI yourself through a reputable online calculator.

Watch your calorie intake and monitor your weight by stepping on a scale.

Many people gain a pound or two pounds a year as they age, leading to an overall weight gain that can reach 30 or 40 pounds and contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, Hu said.

"Obesity is a huge epidemic in the United States. That should be a top public health priority," said Hu, who emphasizes the importance of prevention in American health care. "We should invest more money and more effort on information about a healthy diet and obesity prevention."

3. A healthy diet.

What does a healthy diet look like? It includes nutrient-rich foods that provide the protein, minerals and vitamins you need.

Select plenty of fruits and vegetables, and try to work them into every meal and snack. Other foods to emphasize in a healthy eating pattern are whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils.

Try to limit sodium, red meat, saturated fat and sugars, including sugary beverages. Remember to drink plenty of water for hydration.

4. Don't smoke.

The United States overall has made strides in reducing smoking, but there's still more work to do, Hu said.

Cigarette smoking leads to a higher risk of dying of coronary heart disease. Smoking increases the effects of other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and physical inactivity.

Never smoking is the best option and can be a factor in improving life expectancy. For those who do smoke, quitting is key.

5. Drink in moderation.

Consuming too much alcohol can result in higher risk for various health problems.

It can increase the level of some fats in the blood, known as triglycerides, and can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and certain cancers. It can also increase your calorie consumption, which can increase obesity and diabetes risk.

The AHA considers moderate alcohol consumption to be an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce 100-proof spirits.)

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