Better Lifestyle Increases Life Expectancy



Better Lifestyle Increases Life Expectancy 1

Dr. Micheal Greger’s video yesterday was an eye-opener. He discussed some important papers that show how life expectancy at 50 can be extended significantly by more than a dozen years with some easy-to-implement lifestyle measures. The first paper analyzed data from the classic EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition) and showed dramatic decreases in risk of the big chronic diseases (for example, 80% less risk of heart attack, 93% less risk of diabetes) through four changes: not smoking, avoiding obesity, getting about 30 minutes a day of exercise, and healthy diet (increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reduced meat consumption) [1]. In addition to the reduced risk of chronic disease, these types of lifestyle measures increase life expectancy in Europeans by about 14 years [2]. Of the four measures, “avoiding obesity” is a tricky one for people whose body mass index is currently over 30. That was an easy factor to measure for the researchers, but turning it into viable lifestyle advice is less so. As discussed here in the past, it helps for the focus to be primarily on health, not weight, so for those with a BMI above 30 lifestyle measures like eating more whole foods and less processed foods are good “action items” (more tips were given in that previous post).

A similar study looked at the US population and estimated that adhering to a “low-risk lifestyle” (similar lifestyle changes to those mentioned above) could extend life expectancy at 50 by 14 years for women and more than a dozen for men [3]. This is important because the life expectancy in the US lags behind that of many developed countries. And it is particularly important from my perspective at age 69. The average life expectancy of US men is 75.5. I’d rather take the extra dozen years and have eighteen or more years left, than to have only 6 1/2 left. This is statistics, of course, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, but I like to do what I can to improve the odds.

The video ended with an interesting side trip into psychology. Dr. Greger mentioned that the participants in the US study were health care practitioners. He hoped that this would encourage more US health care practitioners to do the lifestyle changes themselves, and then be more likely to recommend such behaviors to their patients. But this can backfire if not done properly: “Practicing what you preach” can cause people to get defensive and less likely to follow your advice [4]. The best approach is for physicians to practice what they preach, but preach gently, don’t “lord it over” your patients. My own doc is a great role model for that. She gently encourages me to be physically active and eat well, but never has she mentioned she herself follows a mostly plant-based diet and is a marathon runner as a hobby. I had to find that out myself in her biographical data.


  1. Ford, E, et al, “Healthy living is the best revenge: findings from the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam study”, Arch Intern Med, 2009. Online here.
  2. Khaw, K, et al, “Combined impact of health behaviours and mortality in men and women: the EPIC-Norfolk prospective population study”, Plos Med, 2008. Online here.
  3. Li, Y, at al, “Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population”, Circulation, 2018. Online here.
  4. Howe, L, and Monin, B, “Healthier than thou? “Practicing what you preach” backfires by increasing anticipated devaluation”, J Pers Soc Psychol, 2017.