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4 key actions can extend life by 14 years 08.01.08


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We have all known it to be true, if you don’t smoke, take regular exercise, drink in moderation and eat five fruit or veg a day then you will be healthier. Scientists from Cambridge have now shown how much healthier- 14 years of extra life.

The EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population Study, published in the Public Library of Science Medicine, shows how four key actions can have a dramatic impact on life expectancy. The research concluded that social class and body mass were not as determining as previously thought.

The team from University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Dunn Nutrition Unit and Epidemiology Unit surveyed 20,244 men and women aged 45–79 years with no known cardiovascular disease or cancer in 1993–1997, living in the general community in the United Kingdom, and followed up on aveage 11 years later up to 2006.

Participants scored one point for each health behaviour: current non-smoking, not physically inactive, moderate alcohol intake (1–14 units a week) and plasma vitamin C >50 mmol/l indicating fruit and vegetable intake of at least five servings a day, for a total score ranging from zero to four.

The results showed that people who undertook none of the four key actions after age had been factored in were four times more likely to have died over the 11 year period. Indeed people who scored zero were on average dieing off 14 years before those that undertook all four.

The most dangerous of the activities was, not unsurprisingly, smoking- with smokers 77% more likely to die in the 11 year period than none smokers.

Those who eat a high level of fruit and vegetables were 44% likely to be alive at the end of the study, those who did not consumer alcohol or had a low alcohol intake were 26% likely to be alive, and those who exercised regularly were 24% likely to make it.

Very interestingly the research showed that an individual’s body mass and social class made no difference in the results.

With an aging population as we have in the United Kingdom, the research clearly shows that these four key behavioral changes can make a huge difference to the health of middle aged and older people- lowering the demands on the health service and increasing the ability of people to enjoy an active later life.

The Low Income Nutrition and Diet Survey, published in July 2007 by the Foods Standards Agency, showed that the difference in diet amongst social classes is not as serious as previously thought.

The report found: “However, this study did not identify any direct link between dietary patterns and income, food access or cooking skills. The diet-related problems found to affect this group are in general much the same as those facing the population as a whole (based on data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2000/01), including:

- not eating enough fruit and vegetables

- not eating enough oily fish

- consumption of too much saturated fat and sugar

Levels of obesity were found to be very high – 62% of men, 63% of women, 35% of boys and 34% of girls were overweight or obese, which mirrors the high levels within the general UK population.”

However what the report did find was that smoking and high alcohol consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise was higher in the lowest 15% of the population in terms of material deprivation.

According to research from the anti-smoking group ASH smoking levels in the UK have been falling strongly since the 1970’s to an all adult level of 24% in 2005. However there remains a strong class divide in smokers, in 2005, 32% of men and 29% of women in routine and manual occupations smoked compared to 18% of men and 16% of women in managerial and professional occupations.

The case remains that despite the smoking bans, more work is needed to address the real social imbalance in smoking rates, and more assistance is needed from the National Health Service to both educate and help smokers unable to afford the expensive patches, gums and other quitting aids as well as provide psychological and social support and encouragement.

Peter Shield

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Related links

Combined Impact of Health Behaviours and Mortality in Men and Women: The EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population Study

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