March 22nd, 2010
08:00 PM ET

You can be your own fountain of youth

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

Since the days of Ponce de Leon, people have been looking for the fountain of youth and ways to live longer. Now more and more doctors are saying each individual has the power to prolong his or her life. It just takes good health decisions and some discipline. That means eating right, getting up off the couch and giving up cigarettes, if you smoke.

To back up these theories, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington looked at four preventable health factors: Smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and obesity and how those behaviors affect our longevity. The scientists picked these four factors because according to statistics they're responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year from chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes. The study investigators felt that by looking at how these risk factors affect mortality and life expectancy public health officials could better address how to improve the nation's health and to reduce chronic public health conditions.

For their study, researchers used 2005 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and an extensive review of epidemiological studies on the effects of these factors. They estimated the number of deaths that would have been prevented in 2005 if the four risk factors had been reduced.

They found statistics showed that when the four factors were present, the life expectancy of Americans was cut by 4.9 years in men and 4.1 years in women.

When breaking it down by each factor, doctors found smoking cut life expectancy the most. Men who smoked took two and half years off their lives, while female smokers took off a little less than two years. High blood pressure was also a big factor, cutting out a year and half of life from a man with hypertension and 1.3 years from women who suffered from high blood pressure. Those who had high body mass indexes, an indicator of obesity, cut out 1.3 years from their lifespans, while those with high blood glucose, or high blood sugar, cut their lives by half a year in men and about three months in women.

According to the researchers, as a result of these patterns, smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose and overweight and obesity account for almost 20 percent of disparities in life expectancy across the U.S. These four factors also accounted for three-quarters of the events in cardiovascular deaths, and up to half of the incidents of cancer mortality.

"This study demonstrates the potential of disease prevention to not only improve health outcomes in the entire nation but also to reduce the enormous disparities in life expectancy that we see in the U.S.," said Majid Ezzati, associate professor of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

The study appears in the March 23, 2010 issue of the open-access journal PLoS Medicine. It is the first study to look at the effects of those four preventable risk factors on life expectancy throughout the U.S.

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Filed under: Cancer • Exercise • Longevity • Smoking

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. frank

    These are expert, they never mention alcohol. that kill people every day.i wonder if these experts know what a liver is.

    March 23, 2010 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. charls

    The kitchen is more important than the doctor's office. Doctor care is really emergency care while eating right prevents many of the illness that plague people.

    March 23, 2010 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. option

    Frank: a little attention to grammar and format goes a long way.

    The study focused on four specific conditions that have been shown to decrease the lenfth of life and lead to other diseases. Perhaps by "alcohol," you mean alcoholism. It could very well be mentioned in the study as pertaining to the other subjects – this is just an article summarizing the study. As "alcohol" was not one of the main components of the study, it needs no mentioning in the article, and maybe even in the study.

    March 23, 2010 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Chris

    So elevated blood glucose is a preventable cause of death? (this is obviously pointed at diabetes). Ever hear of glucose intolerance? Insulin dependent Diabetes? So your advocating starvation for this class of diebetics? < 150 grams of carbs means you don't have energy to do much but sit around. I can tell you in my case I was 100% fit until 23 when I fell ill with food poisoning. The damage to my body from dehydration and fevor likely led to my Pancreas to not produce insulin after my recovery. I had lost 50 pounds in two weeks.

    //years later// I take 4x insulin, exercise like I did at 25/ eat about 240 grams of carbs and limit fats. I've tried various diets and found that only starving myself to malnourishment to be able to keep my A1C down.

    I am apalled at the lack of discussion or focus on causes and cure for diabetes in this country.

    March 23, 2010 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rick

      Dude, do your research.

      You do not need 150 carbs, hell you don't need ANY carbs to have energy. The human body is perfectly capable of using fat and protein for energy. I run about 100 carbs per day and I have MORE energy than I ever have. I just make sure to keep my protein and fat levels at high enough levels to give me energy.

      You are going to kill yourself. My dad has diabetes and has been prescribed a high carb, low fat diet. He has had two strokes since his diagnosis and continues his high carb ways. High carb will kill you if you have diabetes.

      Just eat 1600 calories a day, 400 from carbs, and 800 from both fat and protein. Your cholesterol will go down and your blood sugar levels will normalize.

      July 23, 2010 at 11:56 | Report abuse |
  5. jack maggard

    Thank God for the health care plan that has been signed into law.
    We can finally rest at night without the fear of a large hospital
    bill bringing us to our knees.
    As for the republicans who have a better plan, where is it!!!!!!
    Certainly not in a tax cut.
    We know it will cost some of us extra, but it will be worth the
    price to know I'm doing something that improves the life of
    my fellow americans who I have served 24 years in the
    military 4.
    I am elated!!!!!!!! As for the compassionate republicans, all
    I can say is---get on with your money loving lifes.

    Jack Maggard
    Sebring, Fl.

    March 23, 2010 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Observer

    Excessive alcohol consumption can result in all four of the risk factors playing a part in your life Frank. It's not the alcohol that kills you, but the long-term effects noted above. Unless you kill yourself or hit a tree while driving. Then it's short-term.

    March 23, 2010 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Debbie

    Very true, diet and some exercise is extremely important. Alcohol is a mix in news, small amounts may be good, beyond that it beats your immune system up something awful. I believe having a strong immune system is the key to a long life otherwise it just seems long.

    March 23, 2010 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. nick

    car accidents kill people everyday too. should they add that? maybe you shouldnt take their findings out of context.

    March 23, 2010 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. tbap

    Your comment about alcohol is not one of the top 4 risk factors. Of course there are other disease killers but alcoholism is not one of them. Why do you have to be so negative and sarcastic when all the experts are doing is educating people? And by the way they are correct and you are wrong.

    March 23, 2010 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. pat

    I can tell you that eating right and exercising daily can help but that will not stave off every disease that a human being can acquire. I exercise daily sometimes twice a day. I also cook my meals at home which are nutritious but I have diabetes. I take my medications faithfully, exercise and eat well. I pray that I will stay well but life is life and anyone can get sick, cancers and so forth. It's all part of the human condition.

    March 23, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dr.D11

    This study,like many studies before,misses the main point:KISS(Keep
    It Simple...).
    The authors of the extensive study,present a complex of factors,which
    are,extremely important and should not be ignor.
    However,if one wishes to motivate the public to follow these guidlines
    as predicted and expected,one has to present one factor that covers all the factors previously mentioned.
    What is the common Denominator-Factor to watch? H.D.L.(High Density Lipoproteins).
    What do we know about it?
    We know that high H.D.L. is associated with longer Life and Health.
    Who knows it?All the animals in the Animal Kingdome(Humans
    This is what we call:Lifestyle Modification.
    Isn't it a fact that horses,deers,bears etc. never stoped practicing this Lifestyle Modification?
    We just have to monitor the H.D.L. frequent enough,to be in the clear about ourselves.

    March 23, 2010 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Steve Whitaker

    I quit smoking nearly 3 years ago. Smoked for 50 years. Used Chantix. If I can do it, anybody can. Also have lost 21 pounds with 9 to go. 1 pound a week simply staying under 1800 calories per day and commuting by bicycle to/from work 3 times a day (18 miles round trip). It's all in how badly you want to get rid of old habits and live longer. Takes daily commitment and willpower.

    March 23, 2010 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Steve

    I quit smoking nearly 3 years ago. Smoked for 50 years. Used Chantix after all other methods failed. If I can do it, anybody can. You just have to want to quit more than you want to smoke. Don't wait till you don't want to smoke; it'll never happen.

    Also have lost 21 pounds with 9 to go. 1 pound a week simply staying under 1800 calories per day and commuting by bicycle to/from work 3 times a week (18 miles round trip). It's all in how badly you want to get rid of old habits and live longer. Takes daily renewed commitment and willpower.

    March 23, 2010 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Pam

    Yeah, I bet they know what a liver is, Frank! My mother, who is 91 years old, has been an alcoholic her entire life and she's healthy as a horse and on no medication! I can't say it's done much for her brain, but because she's always eaten well, her liver is just fine! I know, it's weird and I wouldn't be an alcoholic for anything and it can't be healthy for you, but I think it's what you eat that counts the most! It's true, the kitchen is more important than anything in making the best health decisions. I'm 66, eat healthy, drink very little (a ltitle red wine occassionally), exercise moderately and I'm very healthy. My sister, on the other hand, eats like a pig, eats horrible fast food, and is hugely overweight with diabetes. We have the same genes, but food makes the difference in her unhealthy and my healthy life styles.

    March 23, 2010 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Steve

    I agree excess of alcohol can kill people in a number of ways, from traffic accidents to suicides to disease; it is well know moderate drinking (2 ounces a day for men; 1 ounce a day for ladies) can actually be benefical.

    I think Frank is listeng to those AA zelots, who can not control their consumption of alchol.

    March 23, 2010 at 15:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. DDS

    How come ALCOHOL is Not SHOWN here ?

    In itself it ROTS THE LIVER,Shrinks the Brain,Eats up the THROAT,Demolishes the Kidneys,Affects the Spleen,Pancreas,Gall Bladder,Stomach,Heart,Lungs and Almost every part of the HUMAN BODY...WHy is everyone so AFRAID to MENTION what this POISON Does and How It Kills The DRINKERS and Also INNOCENT PEOPLE'S LIVES ARE also Shortened !!!!!!!!!!1 WHy Do they Keep Condning this POISON ????????...........Please Explain..One would figure the Medical COsts Because of the USE of ALCOHOL surpass SMOKING ANYDAY OF THE WEEK.................

    March 23, 2010 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Marilyn

    Don't overlook heredity! Both my parents had high blood pressure and in my mid-fifties I was also diagnosed with it. I've never been overweight (5'7", 140 lb., BMI of 23), eat right, and exercise. Nevertheless, I will be on blood pressure medication for the rest of my life, and there is nothing I could have done to prevent it.

    March 23, 2010 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Kris

    Charls is right on – eating right is so important.

    Frank said:These are expert, they never mention alcohol. that kill people every day.i wonder if these experts know what a liver is

    Frank I think these experts do know what a liver is. High blood sugar, high blood pressure, obesity and smoking are always bad for you. High alcohol intake is bad for you, but alcohol in moderation actually prevents heart attacks.

    Only a small percentage of people drink heavily, or drink and drive. But a lot of people have the other four factors. More than 30% of americans are obese, and 20% smoke.

    March 23, 2010 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. sanediego

    They don't mention alcohol because moderate consumption can be healthy when not abused. There is no healthy form of smoking, being obese, having high blood pressure, or diabetes.

    March 23, 2010 at 16:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. DDS

    People are so Out of Touch,You Talk about Living Loner,ALCOHOL Use Is not going to DO IT...........Trust Me,And If you Take this comment off I m done with the HIPPOCRITS on HERE

    March 23, 2010 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. debbie bovee freeman


    March 24, 2010 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Tracy

    wanna live a long and happy life? Don't have kids.

    March 29, 2010 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. An amused person

    I think its kinda funny how theres people ranting and raving about alcohol not being in the study and people complaining about the study. Listen people it is just a study don't take offense to it because you might be alittle over weight or not as healthy as you like. Most medical studies don't even come close to being true for every single person out there. For instance I know a guy that is 5ft 5 inches tall and is about 95% muscles and weights about 200 something according to medical research he is over weight and needs to loose weight to be "normal" so take the medical study with a grain of salt like you have to with all medical studies.

    April 13, 2010 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Kim Crawford,M.D.

    Indeed, the study is picking the TOP FOUR. That doesn’t mean that excess alcohol isn’t a problem or stress, or,or,or. One thing that no one talks about (because quite frankly the Pharmaceutical companies OWN Congress) is all of the evidence that physiologic bio-identical hormone replacement improves the quality of lives and indeed does prevent some diseases.
    Kim Crawford,M.D./Anti-Aging Mind,Body,Skin Care

    April 15, 2010 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Kim Crawford,M.D.

    And I am laughing out loud to your comment,Tracy!

    April 15, 2010 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Dr.D11

    Dr. Crawford:
    In your last comment you raised the issue of bio-identical hormones.
    The following are my comments:
    First of all,I prefer bio-identical as their molecules are:Analogs to the
    original molecules of the living organism.
    However:I prefer molecules that are 100% compatible with the body,
    as it will not elicit inflammatory reaction at all.
    No inflammation is always prefered over inflammation(That what shortens our lives.)
    Second:Everything in moderation.Do not treat an individual with excess dosage(That might harm).
    I want to reaffirm my previous statement:H.D.L. is the Guardian
    Angle of Health and Longevity.(Kontus &Chapman.Paris France)
    In the case of alcohol:Why one glass of red wine is good for you?
    Answer:It raises the H.D.L. Why six glasses of red wine are not good for you?(won't is raise the H.D.L. much higher?Yes,but it will raise the
    H.D.L.3,an analog to H.D.L.2,and that means trouble.(One glass of wine raises the H.D.L. 2(See H.D.L. Wikipedia)
    As for mood:It has been proven that just putting someone under stress willdrop his H.D.L.(Reference)

    April 15, 2010 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. ngn

    When are you going to do a story on Aubrey de Grey, the British biomedical gerontologist?

    July 27, 2010 at 19:25 | Report abuse | Reply

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