If people would do just four things – engage in regular physical activity, eat a healthy diet, not smoke and avoid becoming obese – they could slash their risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke or cancer by 80 percent, a new report has found.
The multiyear study, published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine, also found that less than 10 percent of the more than 23,000 people in the study actually lived their lives this way.
“The study has such a simple, straightforward focus on making the point that prevention works in preventing serious disease,” said Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. “What really has been difficult is trying to figure out how to get people to take notice of the message and engage in healthy behaviors.”
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in Germany examined the habits of 23,153 German male and female participants ages 35 to 65 who enrolled in the study from 1994 to 1998. At the start of the study, the scientists measured participants’ heights and weights and asked them about diseases, lifestyle habits and diets.
Healthy factors included never smoking; engaging in physical activity such as sports and bicycle-riding for at least 3.5 hours each week; eating a diet low in red meat and high in fruits and vegetables, and having a body mass index lower than 30. A person with a BMI of 30 or above is classed as obese.
About 9 percent of participants practiced all four healthy lifestyle choices, and 4 percent practiced none. Roughly 35 percent of participants carried out a combination of two healthy factors.
After an average of nearly eight years, researchers reviewed the participants’ medical records for diagnoses of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes or cancers.
Compared with those who practiced none of the four healthy lifestyle factors, those with all four showed a 93 percent reduced risk for developing diabetes; an 81 percent reduced risk for a heart attack; a 50 percent reduced risk for a stroke and a 36 percent reduced risk for cancer.
Two healthy factors combined – never smoking and having a body mass index of under 30 – had a greater effect on chronic diseases than any other combinations of two, reducing risk by 72 percent overall.
The scientists also found that each healthy factor on its own was linked to a reduction in chronic disease risk. A body mass index of lower than 30 had the greatest effect on decreasing risk for any chronic disease but particularly for diabetes. Never smoking reduced the risk of having a heart attack the most of all four factors.
“All of them are important, and trying to pick one is like asking someone to pick their favorite child,” said study co-author Dr. Earl Ford, a senior scientist in the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the CDC.
The findings are consistent with those of investigations that started in the late 1990s.
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