We’ve heard a great deal lately about how those with chronic conditions—diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity—are more likely to become sicker when exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Even leaving aside the coronavirus, many individuals have thought that having multiple chronic medical conditions such as those or others (cancer, asthma, coronary artery disease, and so forth) doomed them to a premature death.
But our concierge doctors have recently come across some good news for those people. It turns out that healthy lifestyle habits can overcome multiple types of chronic conditions and help extend your life.
Lifestyle impacts on chronic conditions
A new study reported last month in the journal PLOS One followed nearly 481,000 middle-aged adults in the U.K. for up to nine years. Of those, 93,746 had two or more chronic medical illnesses (known as multimorbidity) such as those mentioned above.
The researchers focused on four lifestyle factors: smoking, diet, physical activity, and alcohol consumption. They then weighted each of these factors (some healthy foods vs. a great deal, moderate physical activity vs. a great deal vs. none, and so forth) and broke them into four categories:
- very healthy
- very unhealthy
Then they assigned each study participant to a category.
Their results show that those who practiced the healthiest habits lived longer than those who did not, regardless of their current medical challenges.
In particular, men with a very healthy lifestyle were found on average to live 6.3 years longer than those with a very unhealthy lifestyle, while women in these same categories were found to live an average 7.6 years longer.
Even those in the third category, unhealthy, saw some benefit over those with a “very unhealthy” lifestyle.
Not smoking had the largest impact on life expectancy, according to the researchers. Smokers at age 45 were found to live five to six years less than non-smokers, regardless of other disease complications. Because the screening question asked only if participants were current smokers, it is fair to assume that the large study cohort included many former smokers. This proves quitting smoking at any age does confer health advantages.
Regular physical exercise also showed a significant benefit. Those who engaged in some type of regular physical activity lived longer than those who did not. Even if the exercisers had serious medical conditions. Researchers defined regular physical activity as that which met the global health recommendations: 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of weekly vigorous activity.
Men who engaged in regular physical exercise gained an additional 2.5 years of life on average. The benefit for women was slightly lower; they gained 1.9 additional years of life.
Surprisingly, a healthy diet– defined as consuming at least five different fruits and vegetables daily– and moderate or no alcohol intake demonstrated little benefit in increasing life expectancy.
Never too late
We hope our patients find these results encouraging. They show that—even with multiple chronic illnesses—you can not only influence your life expectancy with healthier habits. And they show you can improve your quality of life by following standard guidance for a healthy lifestyle.
Avoid processed foods, and consume a diet high in seafood and fresh produce. Include fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and beans. and low in red meat, dairy, sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
A daily minimum of a half-hour of any kind of mild-to-moderate exercise is crucial to overall health. If necessary, it can be broken into 10-minute increments throughout the day. Even a daily brisk walk will help.
But for optimal health, we recommend any kind of regular, vigorous movement. Try to add up to 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) per week.
3. Stress relief
When your body thinks it is constantly under attack, studies have shown such chronic stress puts you at greater risk for serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, digestive disorders, impaired memory and concentration, anxiety, and depression.Reducing stress is crucial to maintaining good health, so:
- take time for hobbies
- practice relaxation techniques
- exercise regularly
- eat a healthy diet
- stay in touch with friends
At the same time, avoid unhealthy stress relievers like smoking, excess alcohol consumption, and illicit drug intake. These practices merely mask stress triggers temporarily. They can cause damage to the body, as well as to your mental health, in the long run.