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Four healthy lifestyle choices could add years to your life, regardless of your genes, scientists say

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Healthy lifestyle choices could help us live up to five years longer, regardless of our genetic makeup, a study suggests.

As life expectancy creeps up worldwide, there’s growing interest in living healthily for as long as possible, with some trying to reduce their “biological age” and others turning to personalized medicine to prevent health issues. Evidence suggests that a combination of a person’s genetics and lifestyle governs how long they’ll live, but a study published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine on Monday is thought to be the first to compare the effects of the two on lifespan.

The study looked at data from 353,742 adults with European ancestry collected between 2006 and 2010, and tracked their health until 2021 to ascertain whether their genes or lifestyle had a bigger impact on their lifespan.

The researchers ranked the participants according to whether they were genetically predisposed to diseases that could shorten their lifespan, and whether they led a healthy lifestyle. Not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, having a healthy body shape, and drinking alcohol in moderation defined a favorable lifestyle, while the opposite was unfavorable.

Healthy lifestyle choices appeared to offset the impact of genes on longevity

Participants who led “unfavorable” lifestyles were 78% more likely to die early than people with favorable lifestyles — regardless of whether they had genes linked to a shorter or longer lifespan.

The study also found those who were genetically predisposed to short lifespans were 21% more likely to die early than those predisposed to longer lives, even if they made favorable lifestyle choices. At the same time, a healthy lifestyle appeared to offset the effects of genes linked to a shorter lifespan by 62%.

Making favorable lifestyle choices despite having genes linked to a shorter lifespan was linked to living 5.22 years longer than those who made unfavorable choices.

Dr. Liz Williams, a lecturer in human nutrition and a member of the Healthy Lifespan Institute at the University of Sheffield, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Business Insider that she wasn’t surprised that the study found a link between lifespan, genes, and lifestyle factors. However, she said that the effects of lifestyle factors in the study were notable because they suggest that while we can’t change our genes, healthy habits may lessen their impact.

Not smoking, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet could help you live longer

The researchers argued that not smoking, exercising regularly, sleeping seven to eight hours a night, and eating a healthy diet formed what they called an “optimal lifestyle combination,” which appeared to help people live longer while being sustainable over a long period.

The study defined adequate exercise according to the American Heart Association’s guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, gardening, or tennis, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week, such as hiking, swimming, or heavy yard work. A balanced diet with an adequate amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, and a low amount of red and processed meats was deemed healthy.

The researchers didn’t include having a healthy body shape — i.e., having a BMI of between 18.5 and 30 — or reducing alcohol consumption in their “optimal lifestyle combination.” However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that obesity is associated with the leading causes of death, and that drinking too much alcohol can shorten people’s lives by an average of 24 years.

Williams said that alcohol consumption and body shape “definitely still matter” for longevity.

It’s also important to note that the study was observational, meaning the researchers couldn’t prove that the lifestyle changes improved the participants’ longevity. Plus, because this study was only done on people of European descent, the same associations might not apply to other populations, Williams said.

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