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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 September, 2004, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
How healthy living 'extends life'
Image of salad being chopped
'Healthy diets equal a longer life'
It is already known that drinking a little red wine and cooking with olive oil may help us to live longer.

Now experts say adopting four simple lifestyle measures more than halves an elderly person's risk of dying early.

Being careful about diet and alcohol, exercising and not smoking cut death risk by 65% over 10 years, the researchers from Wageningen University found.

The research is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The secret to a long life

The researchers followed more than 1,500 elderly people aged 70 to 90 from 11 European countries over a decade.

They investigated the single and combined effects on life expectancy of four factors previously shown to have positive effects on health.

It's about a diet and lifestyle for a lifetime.
Helen Stracey from the British Dietetic Association

These were following a Mediterranean diet (high in fruit, vegetables and fish and low in red meat and dairy products), being physically active (about 30 minutes per day), moderate alcohol use (about four glasses of wine or equivalent per week) and being a non-smoker.

Alone, each of the factors were linked to a reduced the risk of dying.

Physical activity was the biggest single protector against death, with a 37% lowering of risk, while not smoking cut the risk by 35%, eating a Mediterranean diet 23% and moderate alcohol consumption by 22%.

When an elderly person adopted all four measures their risk of dying was 65% lower over 10 years.

During the follow-up, 935 of the elderly participants in the study died.

Cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, caused 371 of these deaths, 233 were due to cancer and the remaining deaths were from another cause or the cause was unknown.

Mediterranean lifestyle

Failure to follow the four healthy lifestyle measures accounted for 60% of all deaths and of deaths from cancer and 61% of deaths from cardiovascular disease, the researchers estimated.

The study authors said: "A Mediterranean diet, rich in plant foods in combination with non-smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, and at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day is associated with a significant lower mortality rate, even in old age."

Dr Meir Stampfer and Eric Rimm from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, the US, said there was now enough evidence for the relevant health agencies around the world to act upon.

"As a society, the US spends billions on chronic disease treatments and interventions for risk factors.

"Although these are useful and important, a fraction of that investment to promote healthful lifestyles...would yield greater benefit," they said.

Helen Stracey from the British Dietetic Association said: "We are talking about good concrete evidence here.

"This shows that it's not just diet alone. It's about a diet and lifestyle for a lifetime.

"There are no quick fixes."

She said it was particularly important given the growing ageing population.

"Lets face it, the immediate pleasures of eating and the fact that people may have not got into the habit of being physically active as they should be. Life passes them by.

"It's a bit like pensions. It's not their immediate concern.

"We need to start thinking 'I want to have a healthy, actively elderly life,'" she said.

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