People who adopt four healthy behaviors -- never smoking, regular exercise, eating well and maintaining a healthy weight -- can dramatically reduce their likelihood for chronic disease and an early death, a new study confirms.
"We're talking about relatively straightforward behaviors that pretty much everyone knows about already," said study author Dr. Earl S. Ford, a medical officer with the U.S. Public Health Service and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But there's unfortunately a gap between people realizing what's good for them and doing what they might want to do."
"We're showing that for a very wide range of diseases -- not just one chronic disease, but many -- these few behaviors really do have a major impact on prevention," Ford said.
He and his colleagues reported the findings in the Aug. 10/24 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The authors drew on data from a German study conducted between 1994 and 1998. That research probed the lifestyle characteristics, food habits and disease history of about 23,000 German adults between the ages of 35 and 65.
Adherence to four key lifestyle indicators were tracked: never having smoked; having a body-mass index below 30 (the threshold for obesity); exercising for a minimum of 3.5 hours per week; and eating healthfully, as evidenced by a diet high in fruit and vegetable intake but low in meat.
Ford and his team found that rather than scoring an A+ or an F in lifestyle, most study participants engaged in some (one to three), but not all of the ideal behaviors.
Less than 4 percent met none of the criteria for a healthy lifestyle, while 9 percent followed all four.
Tracking disease incidence for almost eight years, the researchers found that when it came to disease prevention and healthy lifestyle, more is more.
Regardless of age, gender, educational achievement or job status, those following all four lifestyle behaviors had a 78 percent lower risk on average for heart disease, cancer and diabetes compared with those who had adopted none of the preferable lifestyle factors.
Taken one by one, diabetes was the most significantly impacted by practicing all four healthy behaviors, with a 93 percent reduced risk compared with those who followed none of the four.
Those who practiced some but not all of the highlighted behaviors did achieve some risk reduction for chronic disease, the researchers noted, although not as much. Having a BMI below 30 appeared to lower disease risk the most, followed by never smoking, routine physical activity and consuming a good diet.
With the findings in, Ford said that the trick now is to motivate the public to practice what researchers are preaching.
"The more you do, the better off you will be," he said. "You can certainly get benefits from practicing one healthy behavior. But at the same time, you will get more benefit the more you do."
"Perhaps studies like this one do help some, by demonstrating how sizeable the impacts truly are," Ford added.
Dr. David L. Katz is director of internal medicine and preventive medicine/public health at the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, as well as the author of an accompanying editorial. He called the strength of the connection between healthy behavior and long, healthy life "incredible."
"This study is essentially a reaffirmation that an amazingly short list of behaviors, which we've been hearing about for about 15 years, massively influence our risk for premature death and for developing all of the major chronic diseases all of us spend most of our time studying and being concerned about," Katz said.
"And so I think of this study as an invitation to every mom and dad -- to every family -- to try and shore up their commitment to eating well, and try to make exercise part of their routine culture, and to not smoke," he observed. "It's an opportunity to endow your child with an 80 percent reduced likelihood of ever getting a heart attack or ever dying of cancer."
Still, it's tough in a sedentary, affluent age to take some of these simple steps, Katz added. "It's an incredible opportunity that we have thus far failed to exploit," he said.