April 26th, 2010
08:41 PM ET

Unhealthy behaviors can triple, quadruple death risk

By Ann J. Curley
CNN Medical News Assignment Manager

It’s no secret that certain lifestyle behaviors can have a negative impact on our health. A new study in the  Archives of Internal Medicine finds that the combined impact of smoking, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, and eating a diet low in fruits and vegetables, can triple or quadruple our chances of death compared with practicing none of those behaviors.

Norwegian researchers interviewed 4,886 adult individuals in the United Kingdom in 1984 to 1985. Researchers calculated a health behavior score based on whether the individuals smoked, drank alcoholic beverages, ate fruits and vegetables in their diet, and participated in physical activity. One point was given for each behavior. Participants were followed for a mean period of 20 years. 1080 participants died, 431 from cardiovascular disease, 318 from cancer, and 331 from other causes. Each negative behavior  combined to increase the risk of death, especially smoking.

Lead study author Elisabeth Kvaavik, Ph.D., of the Department of Nutrition at the University of Oslo, Norway, described the significance of their study as showing that “health behaviors work together to have a combined effect on risk of dying that is quite strong and significant.”

“Doing all four poor behaviors increased the risk of dying between three and four times depending on cause of death, compared with having none of these poor behaviors," according to Kvaavik. "But also having, for instance, two poor and two healthy behaviors, doubles the risk of dying compared to having only healthy behaviors.”

Kvaavik said that one of the most interesting findings of their study is that “having all these poor behaviors had the same effect on risk of death as being 12 years older.”

Modestly changing behaviors can have a big health impact. Kvaavik says she wants people to learn that “…modest improvements in all these lifestyle factors may significantly reduce the risk of dying and improve health."

Specifically, she mentioned eating  fruit and vegetables more than three times daily, quitting smoking, exercising two hours or more per week (or about half an hour per day) as well as limiting alcohol to  two glasses of wine or beer per day for women and three glasses for men. These goals, she said, should be achievable for most, otherwise healthy, people.

"It is not necessary to do strenuous exercising, eat very many vegetables or to totally avoid alcohol to improve health. Modest improvements will help," she said.

She notes one exception to her guidance on modest behavior. “Smoking should be avoided, as this is the factor with the strongest individual effect on health of those studied here. That only modest improvements will reduce the risk of an early death may encourage many to try changing their lifestyles.”

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.