Healthy Habits

These Simple Habits Could Increase Your Lifespan By Decades — So Long As You Start By 40

You don’t need to overhaul your life to extend your longevity.

Dog licking his owner during exercise
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A huge new study from the Veteran’s Affairs Million Veterans — researchers examined data collected from more than 700,000 veterans enrolled in the program over eight years — has found that making a few simple lifestyle changes before the age of 40 can extend your lifespan by up to 24 years.

Men who were physically active, followed a healthy diet, successfully managed stress, practiced good sleep hygiene, and had positive social relationships — and who did not binge drink, smoke cigarettes, or have an opioid addiction — lived, on average, 24 years longer. So long as they adopted these healthy habits by the age of 40. Women who engaged in all eight behaviors before age 40 had an average lifespan increase of 21 years.

But if you’re over 40 — or you adopt only a few of the changes — you can still reap benefits. “The earlier, the better, but even if you only make a small change in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it still is beneficial,” researcher Xuan-Mai T. Nguyen said in a statement. “We were really surprised by just how much could be gained with the adoption of one, two, three, or all eight lifestyle factors.”

Stress, poor sleep, binge drinking, and a poor diet were all linked to a 20% increased risk of death, and low-quality social relationships were related to a 5% increase in risk of death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research team found that opioid addiction, smoking, and decreased physical activity had the most drastic negative impact on lifespan, increasing the risk of death within the study period by 30 to 45%.

Though the study focused on those entering middle age, it’s never too early — or too late — to make healthier choices. It can be as simple as putting your phone away an hour before bedtime, calling a friend, or making the time to walk places you might normally drive. All of these lifestyle changes, taken at once, can seem overwhelming. Where do you start? And how do you start? Some tips, below, on how to make good on your health without feeling like you need to reinvent your lifestyle.

1. Get Some Sleep

Sleep and parenting don’t always go together, but studies have shown that seven hours a night of quality sleep can protect against anxiety and depression, and may also protect against Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Whenever possible, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day — even on the weekends — and avoid screens, big meals, caffeine or alcohol in the hours before bedtime.

2. Get Moving

You don’t need a radical new exercise routine — or even a gym membership. Small bouts of physical activity, such as periodic five-minute walks throughout the day, have been shown to contribute to cardiovascular health, reducing both blood pressure and blood glucose, two major contributors to chronic disease. And isometric exercises like wall sits and planks are more effective at lowering blood pressure than any other type of exercise.

3. Eat Healthier

Diets — from the Mediterranean Diet to DASH — that are heavy on “fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fats, whole grains, and small amounts of fish and chicken, along with some low- or nonfat dairy” and light on red meat, processed foods, and foods high in saturated fat, do wonders for the heart, lowering blood pressure, and supporting overall health. Working in more of certain types of food — like nuts, dairy, fish and fruit — has been shown to extend our lifespans as well.

4. Call A Friend

Social isolation is bad for us — and friendship is the cure. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently compared the negative health impacts of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. But research has found that having just one conversation with a friend a day — over the phone, via texting, or in person — is a seriously strong fix.

5. Keep Calm

Stress kills. Finding positive ways to manage stress, especially in today’s hyper-intense world, can absolutely save your life. Deep breathing, meditation, exercise, are all proven, and healthy, ways to help alleviate stress. Light yoga or autogenic training are two great ways to start ratcheting down the stress.

6. Reach Out For Help

Updated guidelines from the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism state that men should consume no more than two drinks daily and women should only have one drink per day. Those limits are per day — it’s not safe to, for example, have 10 drinks in one night, but not drink the rest of the week.

Although moderation is key in alcohol consumption, there is no safe level of cigarette smoking, and research on vaping shows that it has the potential to be just as harmful as traditional tobacco smoking.

The CDC reports that nearly a million people have died of a drug overdose since 1999 — and nearly 75% of drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid. The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis in the United States, one that has only accelerated in recent times. If you are struggling with substance abuse, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA’s) treatment line at 1-800-662-4357. The hotline will refer you to support groups, treatment centers, and more, and is open 24/7, 365 days a year. You are not alone.