Following a combination of health behaviours such as never smoking and eating fruits and vegetables daily is associated with aging successfully with a high quality of life, a new study suggests.

Researchers defined successful aging as enjoying not only good physical and mental health, but also being free of disability from chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer.

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Following multiple healthy behaviours like eating fruits and vegetables daily and not smoking seems to increase the chance of reaching old age disease-free. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

Dr. Séverine Sabia of the department of epidemiology and public health at England's University College London and her colleagues tracked 5,100 men and women aged 42 to 63 for about 16 years. The participants were all free of cancer, coronary artery disease and stroke when the study began.

Participants were asked about four healthy behaviours:

  • Never smoking.
  • Moderate alcohol consumption of one to 14 units per week for women and one to 21 units per week for men.
  • Physical activity (at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate intensity physical activity or one hour or more of vigorous physical activity a week.)
  • Eating fruits and vegetables daily.

Compared with the subjects who said they followed no healthy behaviours, the ones who followed all four had 3.3 times higher odds of successfully aging, Sabia's team reported in Monday’s issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Motivating lifestyle changes

"Although individual healthy behaviours are moderately associated with successful aging, their combined impact is quite substantial," the study's authors concluded.

Following multiple healthy behaviours seemed to compound each other for increasing the chances of reaching old age both free of disease and with improved quality of life, they said.

Among those in the study:

  • 4.9 per cent engaged in no healthy behaviours.
  • 18.3 per cent engaged in one.
  • 33.8 engaged in two.
  • 31.3 per cent engaged in three.
  • 11.8 per cent engaged in four.

The participants filled in questionnaires, and investigators gave them a battery of tests to assess their cognitive functioning, walking speed, respiratory function and blood pressure.

Of those in the study, 549 died during followup and 953 met the criteria for successful aging. Successful agers tended to be younger (average age 49.7 compared with 51.3), were more likely to be married and to have a university education or higher, the researchers said.

Participants were healthier than the general population and they self reported their health behaviours, the study's authors said in describing the limitations of the study.

The research was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation and the U.S. National Institute on Aging.