C-Force: So Much Standing in the Way of Healthy Habits
A new study has identified eight lifestyle habits that, if adopted, may significantly extend a person's lifespan. You may have read about this. It was widely reported. Could this be a much-needed answer to the announcement in April that life expectancy in the U.S is now the shortest it's been in nearly two decades?
Responding to the news, Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, expanded on why the diminishing life expectancy findings are so shocking. In an interview on WP Live, a podcast from The Washington Post, Williams added that "younger people in America are dying at high rates than their counterparts in other high-income countries," and that the U.S. also has among "the highest maternal and infant mortality rates among upper-income countries."
While pointing out that the U.S. is a leader in medical and health innovation, Williams goes on say that "we are different (than other high-income countries) ... we emphasize rescue care, acute care at the expense of investing in, supporting, and enabling health promotion and disease prevention." This seems to prove to be a fatal flaw.
According to Dr. Yanping Li, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study, "The purpose is to let the general audience and the clinical physician to understand how much the difference (is) if they do this or that, so it's kind of (to help) them to explain to the patient why it's so important to adopt a healthier lifestyle."
So, what are these eight lifestyle habits? Let us count the ways. Reports Medical News Today, the list includes being physically active, not smoking, managing your stress, maintaining a good diet, avoiding drinking alcohol excessively, practicing good sleep hygiene, maintaining positive social relationships, and not developing an opioid addiction.
The data used for this study was collected between 2011 and 2019 and featured U.S. veterans between the ages of 40 and 99 enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Million Veteran Program, a health research program centering around more than a million United States veterans.
Writes Medical News Today's Beth JoJack, "The study found that men who have adopted all eight habits at the age of 40 would be predicted to live 24 years longer, on average, than men who adopted none of these habits. Women who have adopted all eight habits by age 40 would live 23 years longer on average compared to those who adopted none." There are benefits to be had even if patients can't adopt all eight healthy habits.
Commenting on the eight lifestyle habits of the study, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, says he found the results impressive. "If you do wrap them all together, and you start reasonably early, it does seem to predict that you get a substantial increase in your life expectancy. We're not talking about days, weeks, months, or only a couple of years."
Schaffner also notes that these findings are based on an observational study that has not gone through the peer review process. "I think one of the most important limitations and cautions that people need to understand while interpreting the results of our study is that our estimations are based on observational data and causality cannot be assumed from our findings."
It is also pointed out that there are other factors to consider. Not everyone has access to the "upstream factors," as Williams discussed in her WP Live interview, such as clean air, clean water, shelter, proper education and healthy diet.
Which leads us to one major factor over which folks have more direct control -- lifestyle habits. The eight things highlighted in the list are well known. The question is will attaching specific years of potential life extension to the conversation about adopting healthy habits make a significant difference in the results? Can it override a pattern of bad and risky behavior that seems so ingrained in the world we now live in?
"After two years of COVID, the escalation of ordinary citizens' bad behavior is hard to ignore," writes clinical psychologist Francine Toder in a May 2022 story in Psychology Today. One explanation is "the weakened cornerstones of our societal structure. ... In the last decade, laws, which include government agency dictates, may be having less of a restraining effect on American society -- because more people are disregarding them, emboldened when consequences aren't significant."
In February, the Harvard Business Review ran a story on how risky occasionally destructive behavior spreads, co-authored by Jennifer M. Logg, an assistant professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and Catherine H. Tinsley, a professor and chair of the Management Area at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
In examining the problem of excessive risk-taking as seen in a business context, it led them to a phenomenon they called "risk creep," the growing tolerance of risky behavior. "If people engage in risky behavior without serious consequences," they become emboldened to continue, they write.
A five-month longitudinal field study they conducted following lockdown revealed that "people who said they took part in riskier public activities one week gradually engaged in more subsequent discretionary activities the following week."
Being more physically active, quitting smoking, maintaining a good diet, avoiding drinking alcohol, along with the other suggested changes, all take time to cultivate, and a sense of discipline that seems greatly lacking nowadays.
Says a January report in Environmental Nutrition, an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts, "According to Wendy Wood, author of 'Good Habits, Bad Habits,' research shows about 43% of behaviors are driven by habit, which means about 43% of what people do every day is repeated in the same context ... People try to change behavior by getting motivated (how healthy and fit I'll be!) and exerting willpower. But these don't last very long -- they are effortful, require thought, and are not much fun," says Wood.
"Repeated actions are very much dependent on our immediate environments," Woods reminds us. "I buy already-chopped veg so that it's easy to add to meals when I am cooking. It's now my habit." The problem is, there are sure to be additional bad choices no matter what alternate route a person may choose.
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