We as a society have (mostly) moved passed the point where the large scale killers are communicable diseases. As a result, what we as a society is dealing with as our health crisis comes from chronic diseases, oftentimes referred to as “diseases of affluence.” Take a look at the top 10 causes of death by disease in the United States (according to the CDC):
- Heart disease: 597,689
- Cancer: 574,743
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 138,080
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 129,476
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 120,859
- Alzheimer’s disease: 83,494
- Diabetes: 69,071
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,476
- Influenza and Pneumonia: 50,097
- Intentional self-harm (suicide): 38,364
If we remove accidents (because blunt force trauma isn’t a disease) then we have to get all the way down to influenza and pneumonia to reach the point where a communicable disease is the cause of death and it’s not even 1/10th the killer of heart disease. So when the discussion regarding health care costs skyrocketing turns to “preventing chronic illness,” this is to what they are referring.
Researchers have searched for the “fountain of youth,” either by polypill or technology. However, public health researchers have always looked toward the environment and daily habits as a means for attempting to tease out a de facto longevity formula. This is in part because:
- You have to live life anyway, so you might as well make some tweaks to set yourself up to win.
- Even if we had a fountain of youth in a pill, a full 50% wouldn’t take it anyway.
Before Oprah gave everyone cars, she outlined places around the world where people were living longer stronger. These “Blue Zones” are the topic of another blog post but understand that researchers have been trying to crack this nut for much longer than the last decade.
If you back the longevity train up a bit further, you’ll find a researcher by the name of Lester Breslow. In 1965, Breslow started a study in Alameda country, California that examined the health habits of 6,928 people, with an eye toward 7 health habits he deemed most important (which is why the study is referred to as the “Alameda 7”). Their behavior was examined over intervals of up to 20 years and the data was parsed with quantitative analysis (which at the time didn’t happen with longevity studies). As a result, Breslow found that a 45 year old who followed at least 6 of the 7 habits had a life expectancy 11 years longer than that of a person who followed 3 or fewer. And these were good, strong, functional years free of major disease or complication, because what does it matter that you live longer if you can’t do anything with it?
What were the habits? Here’s his original list of the Alameda 7:
- Avoiding Smoking
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy bodyweight
- Sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night
- Limiting consumption of alcoholic drinks
- Eating Breakfast
- Avoiding snacking between meals.
…That’s it. You were expecting some sort of lifestyle calculus? Something only the “chosen few” could accomplish? There’s nothing sexy here and that’s the point: what is done consistently, albeit imperfectly, is what makes changes in the long term. Interventions require rigidity and high effort; lifestyles do not.
Don’t believe that this one study was enough? The good news is that the research has been followed and examined many times over the years. More recently, Dr. Jeff Housman (one of my graduate school professors) and colleague put together a review of the data that came from the study and subsequent reviews. Check this tidbit:
The linear model supported previous findings, indicating regular exercise, limited alcohol consumption, abstinence from smoking, sleeping 7–8 hours a night, and maintenance of a healthy weight play an important role in promoting longevity and delaying illness and death.
So really the “Alameda 7” is the “Alameda 5,” meaning that 1-5 on my list above are the big lifestyle “tricks” you need to attempt to do in order to set yourself up for a longer, stronger life.
So what happened to Lester Breslow? He died quietly in his home in 2012…at the age of 97. Maybe there’s something to this stuff after all?
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.