Being active and fit is supposed to keep you healthy. But does it translate to a longer life? That’s the question addressed in a new Swedish study published on the website of the British Medical Journal, BMJ.com. And the findings should provide lots of incentive to get up and move. Living a healthy lifestyle into old age can add five years to women’s lives and six years to men’s, say the researchers, adding that this is the first study that directly provides information about differences in longevity according to several lifestyle factors within your control. To find out if changing bad habits like being overweight, smoking and heavy drinking, could positively impact those over 75, the Swedish team measured the differences in survival among over 1,800 individuals who were followed for 18 years (1987-2005). Data on age, sex, occupation, education, lifestyle behaviors, social network and leisure activities were recorded. During the follow-up period 92 percent of participants died, with half of the participants living longer than 90 years.
Survivors were more likely to be women, be highly educated, have healthy lifestyle behaviors and a better social network, and participate in more leisure activities than non-survivors. The results show that smokers died one year earlier than non-smokers. Former smokers had a similar pattern of survival to never smokers, suggesting that quitting smoking in middle age reduces the effect on mortality. Of the leisure activities, physical activity was most strongly associated with survival. The average age at death of participants who regularly swam, walked or did gymnastics was two years greater than those who did not.
Overall, the average survival of people with a low risk profile (healthy lifestyle behaviors, participation in at least one leisure activity and a rich or moderate social network) was 5.4 years longer than those with a high risk profile (unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, no participation in leisure activities and a limited or poor social network). Even among those aged 85 years or older and people with chronic conditions, the average age at death was four years higher for those with a low risk profile compared with those with high risk profile. Overall, women’s lives were prolonged by five years and men’s by six years. “Our results suggest that encouraging favorable lifestyle behaviors, even at advanced ages, may enhance life expectancy, probably by reducing morbidity,” they conclude.