Adopting these five healthy habits can add decades to your life — even if you pick them up after 50

A new study that might have you turning over a new leaf in (later) life.

A new study that might have you turning over a new leaf in (later) life.

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This article was originally published May 8, 2018.

If you've been careful with your human form to date, chances are you're quite right to expect you'll live to a ripe old age - like so much fresh fruit. If you've been more cavalier with your soul case, you may wince at the prospect of longevity. (Side note: did you get that mole checked yet?) Should you count yourself among those who've ordered a meal au gratin more times than they've seen the inside of a gym (I'm neck and neck myself), don't panic. As it turns out, there's a scientifically sound strategy for staying the reaper's hand a while longer, even if you're already well past your prime. Thankfully, it doesn't involve cryogenically freezing parts of your anatomy. The thing is, longer life may still involve a fair bit of self-mastery.

Analyzing the medical records and lifestyle questionnaires of 123,000 volunteers over 30 years, Harvard researchers have pinned down five healthy habits that when implemented and adhered to strictly — in adulthood — can add more than a decade to your lifespan. To get to their numbers they… well frankly, they waited for people to die (the study reads, "we documented 42,167 deaths"). No one said hard health science was a giggle fest.

Still, according to the recent major study, behaviour had a massive impact on health and life expectancy. Yes, this we already knew. But making sound choices in five key lifestyle areas, even in adulthood, has now been shown to bolster health and lifespan far more than researchers anticipated. 

Longer life came more certainly to those who minded the following past the age of fifty: proper dietary intake (plenty of fruits, veggies and whole grains while restricting red meat, saturated fats and sugar), restrained alcohol consumption (no more than 150 ml of wine a day for women; twice that for men), the maintenance of a healthy weight (a body mass index between 18.5 and 25), regular physical activity (a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day) and not smoking a single cigarette.

So, while there remains no holy grail for eternal youth, the life expectancy of those who adopted these healthy five compared to people who stuck to none of the habits was considerable. Study co-author and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Meir Stampfer confirmed that findings were bound to be positive given the markers examined, but still, the data still managed to raise a high brow eyebrow. "When we embarked on this study, I thought, of course, that people who adopted these habits would live longer," he says. "The surprising thing," he added, "was how huge the effect was."

Men who adopted all five habits at 50 lived a solid 12 years longer: a 26-year life expectancy became 38. The boost was even more significant for women. They enjoyed 14 more years in this world when they got resolute with healthy habits past 50: a 29-year life expectancy became 43. Put another way, lifespans of 76 years became 88 for men and 79 years of life became 93 for women.

What's more, the specific health habits weren't just linked to a surplus of years, but a surplus of healthier ones. The data showed that men and women who could implement healthy habits were 82% less likely to die of heart disease and 65% less likely to die of cancer compared to their zero-healthy-habit counterparts. The study, although conducted in the U.S., also applies to the rest of the western world according to Stampfer. The real mystery for Stampfer is not so much that healthy habits translate to longevity, but that they remain so difficult for the vast majority of us to adopt with any real resolve.

Case in point, if you're feeling like those lifestyle behaviours might prove daunting to implement consistently, you're not alone. As hopeful as the new findings are, only 8% of the study group population showed enough stick-to-itiveness to snatch those extra years from the bony hand of death with a handful of healthy habits. Stampfer lists the power of nicotine addiction, mass marketing of highly accessible but low-quality food, and weak urban planning (making it tough to get exercise into a workday) as things that factor into the very real challenge of proper and persistent self-care. Life, here, today, isn't all that well-designed for longer life.

The salient takeaway of the study for Stampfer is the potential for a turnaround, even late in the game. "People can get stuck in a rut and think it's too late to change their ways," says Stampfer,  "but what we find is that when people do change their ways, we see remarkable benefits."

You could do worse for yourself than adopting some healthier habits at your earliest convenience, and that holds true at any age. But if that half-century birthday is coming up and you want to make some healthy changes, maybe a good book on habit and discipline should be the horse before the proverbial cart in your wellness overhaul. For what it's worth, I've still got a grace period of about nine years. By which I mean I'm having a steak and a couple glasses of Pinot for supper. Maybe some greens. See you at the centenarians club!

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news. Follow him on Twitter @TheMarcBeaulieu for fun facts and oddities.