It’s inevitable: We all have to die sometime. You may wonder if eating a nutritious diet and cultivating other healthful habits will add years to your life. It might, but even if it doesn’t, it will most likely add life to your years.
A recent Pew Research study suggests that if given the chance to live to be 120, most Americans would decline the offer. Considering that half the people in this country have at least one chronic disease — half of those people have two or more — it’s no wonder that tacking on some extra years to the end of life might not sound appealing.
While our life spans have been increasing as a result of advances in medicine, the number of years we spend in good health has been decreasing. But disease and disability are not the natural results of aging. It’s a common assumption that our personal risk of disease is predetermined by our genes, but that’s generally not the case. The truth is that chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia and cancer can often be prevented — or at least delayed — by good nutrition and a healthful lifestyle.
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To best boost the odds of preventing chronic disease, science says we should eat a nutritious diet, get regular physical activity, avoid tobacco use and keep alcohol to moderate levels. A large study of middle-aged men and women in Britain found that those who practiced all four of these behaviors were three times as likely to avoid chronic disease, disability or mental-health problems. That’s compared to people who practiced none of those behaviors.
Each healthful behavior by itself increased the odds of healthy aging by 30 to 50 percent, but the benefits of engaging in more than one were greater than the sum of their parts.
Disease risk aside, our nutrition and health habits affect us every single day. They influence the microscopic processes going on in our cells that determine how fast, and how far, we decline with age. Our habits also shape how we feel, how much energy we have and our ability to tackle our daily activities. Here’s where you can make a difference:
Nutrition. There is no one perfect diet for promoting health and longevity. While certain foods, such as broccoli and green tea, contain compounds that have been linked to improved health and a longer life, you don’t need to try to build a diet out of “superfoods.” Doing so would be limiting and restrictive. Aim to eat a variety of nutritious foods about 80 percent of the time. Can’t do 80 percent? Do what you can. One bite is better than none.
Exercise. While 30 minutes a day, five days a week is optimal, even 10 to15 minutes a day has benefits for health, especially if you currently aren’t exercising at all.
Stress. People with high stress see greater declines in cellular function with age. People who do better at preventing or managing stress are also more likely to engage in other healthy behaviors such as eating well, exercising and getting adequate sleep.
Sleep. Poor sleep habits can raise stress levels and weaken the immune system. For most people, sleeping seven to eight hours a night brings the best health benefits.
Carrie Dennett is a graduate student in the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.