Clinical research is taking huge strides forward in the fight against chronic diseases. With new, better treatments being developed every day we’re ever closer to managing some of the most burdensome diseases humankind has to deal with. 

Yet, treating chronic illnesses is one of the biggest financial burdens on US healthcare – 75% of the health money goes to treating this kind of disease. At the same time, no budget seems to be big enough to prevent the 70% of annual deaths as a result of chronic illnesses. Why is this happening? What can be done about it? 

On this Healthy Lifestyle Awareness Day, we at FindMeCure want to focus on prevention. Although we have faith in the future of medicine and we know the path to managing and eventually curing chronic illnesses goes through developing better treatments, we also know that prevention is better than any treatment. If we, on a large-scale level, put the emphasis on preventing chronic illnesses, we can lift the global burden and extend the average life expectancy. In order to do it, we need to be better educated about what healthy, prevention-oriented lifestyle is and what results we can expect for our efforts. 

A healthy lifestyle can extend your life

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers analyzed 34 years worth of data for women and 28 for men on the impact of healthy lifestyle on longevity. The questionnaires they worked with included information about diet, physical activity, weight, alcohol consumption and smoking habits (or lack of thereof). 

According to their analysis, a healthy lifestyle extended life expectancy with 14 years for women and 12 years for men. A healthy lifestyle, as defined in the study, consisted of a healthy diet, regular physical activity, healthy body weight, reduced alcohol consumption and no history of smoking. The participants who reported all of the above could expect significantly longer and healthier lives. Those who reported none, however, had a higher risk of premature death from cancer or heart disease. 

These findings confirm previous research on the link between unhealthy habits and premature deaths. A 2012 systematic review, for example, found that half of premature deaths were related to unhealthy diet, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity and lack of physical activity. 

Healthy habits to beat heart disease

A recent (2019) study on healthy lifestyle behaviours on adults with and without history of stroke (HOS) found that adults without HOS were more likely than those with HOS to eat one or more fruit and one or more vegetable a day. They were also more likely to meet weekly physical activity recommendations and have a BMI in the healthy range (between 18.5 and 24.9). 

The same five healthy habits that were indicated in the Harvard research appear again and again. Want to control your blood pressure? Keep unhealthy cholesterol at bay? More fruit and vegetables, aerobic activity combined with strength training and moderate alcohol consumption are what you should start with. 

Remember that you can never quit smoking too early – the sooner, the better. The benefits for your heart health begin as soon as the first cigarette-free hour: the heart rate goes back to normal 20 minutes after your last cigarette, then blood pressure drops and circulation in the whole body begins to improve. And your risk of heart attack? Starts decreasing after the first day without smoking. Coronary heart disease? The risk goes down 50% after just a year. And while we’re on the topic, the benefits of quitting this unhealthy habit include reduced inflammation – if you’re fighting autoimmune disease, living cigarettes-free is a must.  

Healthy lifestyle against diabetes

In 2012 the estimated burden of diabetes was $176 billion in medical costs. While treating people is obviously a good thing, preventing the disease should be our first priority, especially considering how preventable type 2 diabetes actually is. Most cases can be avoided by maintaining healthy body weight and keep in mind that healthy doesn’t necessarily mean slim, there’s a BMI range for a reason, not a single goal post to reach. 

As many as 9 in 10 cases of type 2 diabetes in the US can be prevented by introducing lifestyle changes. That was the good news, the even better news is, these are the same lifestyle changes that can prevent heart disease and some types of cancer. If you have been postponing getting to a healthier weight, now is the time – being overweight or obese is the biggest risk factor when it comes to diabetes. Obesity makes you between 20 and 40 times more likely to develop the disease while losing just 7% of your body weight reduces the risk by half. 

When it comes to physical activity, aerobic exercise is good for your heart health and strength training wards off diabetes. Developing your muscles improves their ability to utilize insulin and absorb glucose which takes the pressure off your insulin-making cells. Just having a brisk walk for half an hour a day can already reduce your risk by 30% – now you can’t say you don’t have the time to exercise. Unsurprisingly, smoking is also linked to type 2 diabetes and quitting will do wonders for your health. 

A fact you might need to hear: 80% of people with prediabetes, high blood sugar with a high risk of developing the disease, don’t know it. At this point, diabetes is still avoidable so check your blood sugar annually.   

What exactly is a healthy lifestyle? 

We know that healthy habits can significantly improve our quality of life, extend our lifespan, greatly reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer – and even improve our mental health. According to research, exercise can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression and be a useful tool in the fight against mood disorders. But what exactly constitutes a healthy lifestyle and how do we go about forming healthy habits?

The five factors to keep in mind are consistent across studies: physical activity, balanced diet, healthy body weight, moderate alcohol consumption and no smoking. The guidelines are accommodating enough so as not to scare you away from making better choices. For example, the recommended daily physical activity is only half an hour of moderate to vigorous aerobic or strength training. Including both is preferable but if you’re more of a jogger and lifting weights is something you do not enjoy, don’t make yourself do it. The point is to get your body moving. If you want a quick hack to health: yoga is your best option. And don’t be fooled into thinking yoga is always slow and steady – it can be a great workout both for your heart and for your muscles. 

A healthy diet doesn’t mean restrictive – variety here is key. Include more plant-based dishes in your weekly menu and you’re halfway there. Replace saturated with unsaturated fats (butter for avocado) as often as you can and completely avoid trans fats which often come from deep-fried foods, chips or microwave dinners. Less salt and sugar in your diet will benefit you as well but remember that a truly healthy diet is not one of complete restriction as this can lead to disordered eating. 

Keep in mind that according to the World Health Organisation, moderate alcohol intake is not ideal. 

“WHO does not set particular limits for alcohol consumption because the evidence shows that the ideal solution for health is not to drink at all, therefore less is better.”

The same goes for smoking: no cigarettes is decisively better than few or even just one. The good news is, if you follow the guidelines so far, your BMI will take care of itself. If you eat a healthy diet based on plants and lean protein and you exercise moderately but you are still overweight, an underlying health issue should be explored as a possible explanation so bring this up with your doctor. 

If your interest in healthy living exceeds the realm of internet summaries you can dedicate your time to research as well. Many observational studies are exploring the link between healthy habits and mental health, lower risk for chronic illness, cancer prevention and so on. Depending on which aspect of a healthy lifestyle you’re most interested in, you can join a study on sleeping habits, diet, physical activity or anything else you’d like to learn more about. By becoming a volunteer you help medical advancements reach those who need them sooner.  

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