Susan Dudley, PhD, Isabel Platt, Caroline Halsted, and Alex Pew. National Center for Health Research
Life expectancy in the United States has been decreasing between 2014 and 2017, when the latest data was collected.1 Now more than ever, it is important to understand what you can do to live the longest, healthiest life possible.
The following are seven simple principles that can make a big difference in helping you maintain your overall health and lowering the probability of developing serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, lung diseases, stroke, and diabetes.
1) Avoid Tobacco and Tobacco Smoke
Diseases related to cigarette smoking alone account for almost 1 of every 5 adult deaths in the United States each year.2 The greater the total lifetime exposure to tobacco smoke, the greater the risk of developing smoking-related diseases such as lung disease and many cancers.3
But lung cancer isn’t the only cancer associated with smoking. Women who start smoking at a younger age, and smoke for many years, are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer. The risk is even greater for those who have a family history of breast cancer. Cessation of smoking decreases the chances of developing breast cancer, however, it may take about 20 years for that increased risk of breast cancer to disappear completely.4
Pursuing a tobacco-free life means pursuing a healthier life. The message is clear: Don’t smoke, and keep away from the second-hand smoke which is produced when those around you smoke tobacco, and third-hand smoke, which is the tobacco residue left on clothing or furniture. Also avoid tobacco products, such as hookah or chewing tobacco. Although e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, that does not mean that they are safe. See this article for more information about e-cigarettes.
Quitting tobacco has major and immediate health benefits. There are many resources to help you find the most effective way for you to quit tobacco. For help, call the National Cancer Institute’s smoking cessation quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT or visit smokefree.gov. The CDC also provides a list of other resources to help you quit.
2) Limit Alcohol Consumption
Excessive drinking causes 1 in 10 adult deaths in the U.S.5 These deaths result from drunk driving, risky behaviors, and diseases caused by alcohol, such as liver diseases and cancers of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, prostate, and liver. For example, about 9% of breast cancer cases worldwide are caused by alcohol, and the risk of breast cancer increases depending on average alcohol consumption.6 Some research shows some possible health benefits of moderate alcohol use.7 These potential benefits include possibly reducing your risk of heart disease, ischemic stroke, or diabetes. However, the evidence suggesting these benefits are not conclusive, and it is certainly likely that alcohol does not benefit everyone. If there are any benefits, the key is drinking in moderation, which is much less drinking than most people think.
The Mayo Clinic defines drinking in moderation as having up to 1 drink per day for women of all ages and men over 65, and up to 2 drinks per day for men 65 and under.7 This definition refers to the amount consumed on any single day, not an average over several days. One drink includes one beer (12 fluid ounces), one glass of wine (5 fluid ounces), or one shot of hard alcohol (1.5 fluid ounces).
For more information on how alcohol can affect your health, visit the CDC website.
3) Eat a Healthy Diet
Although surveys confirm that most Americans believe they have healthy eating habits, obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise.8,9 A lack of nutrients may lead to diseases such as osteoporosis and anemia, while eating unhealthy foods can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions.
An ideal diet depends on a person’s age, sex, and activity level. In general, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends diets that are low in sodium, solid fats, cholesterol, and added sugars, and high in nutrient-dense foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds.9
Unhealthy food is easy to find, especially in the form of canned and processed foods. Eating “ultra-processed” foods, like cup noodles and boxed mac and cheese is linked to cancer.10 To avoid unhealthy amounts of sodium, fats, and sugar, it is important to monitor the nutrient labels on the foods we buy at the supermarket, and to eat fresh food rather than processed food as much as possible.
4) Control your Weight
More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight and more than one-third qualify as obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.11 People who are overweight or obese are more vulnerable to medical problems, such as high blood pressure; diabetes; heart disease; stroke; gallbladder disease; severe lung and breathing problems; osteoarthritis; and endometrial, breast, and colon cancers.
One important step to controlling your weight is switching to a healthier diet, which includes choosing lower calorie foods, eating smaller portion sizes, cooking foods that are lower in fat, and paying careful attention to what you order at restaurants. Some restaurants list “heart healthy” choices, and many large chain restaurants provide information about calorie and fat content.
When you consistently choose lower-calorie, healthier foods, it may seem like you are able to eat more over the course of a day. These nutrient-dense foods allow you to consume fewer calories and get important nutrients including calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins. For more information about “nutrient-dense” foods, read this article.
“Overweight” and “obese” are categories determined by body-mass index (BMI), which is calculated based on height and weight. However, having a high BMI does not necessarily mean that you are at an unhealthy weight. Physical activity, genetics, and other lifestyle choices play an important role in determining your body’s health. BMI also doesn’t take muscle mass into consideration, so keep that in mind.
If you want to try counting calories as a way to control your weight, try out the daily calorie needs calculator at cancer.org. You can also download the MyFitnessPal mobile app to log your daily calorie intake and exercise routine.
5) Move Every Day
Adding 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise to your daily routine can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, and high blood pressure. Research indicates that exercise helps control weight, contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints, reduces falls among older adults, helps to relieve arthritis pain, and can even reduce the likelihood of dying from cancer.12,13 Exercise also has positive mental health effects, like reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and it is associated with better sleep.12
Everyone can benefit from regular physical exercise, and regardless of age or fitness level, it’s never too late to start. You don’t need to be an athlete, and the activity you choose doesn’t need to be strenuous, involve a gym membership, or be competitive. The point is simply to get moving, elevate your heart rate, and keep it elevated during the course of the activity period.
Most people believe that they are getting more exercise in the course of their daily lives than they actually are. Experts advise adults to engage in moderate-intensity physical activities – like walking, biking, swimming, mowing the lawn, or dancing – for at least 30 minutes on 5 or more days of the week. In addition to aerobic activities, it is important to include muscle-strengthening activities such as weight lifting, sit-ups, or yoga.14 Remember that any exercise is better than none at all, and that there are many easy ways to begin exercising. Find ways to exercise as you go about your daily tasks: take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk instead of driving, squat when you pick things up. Start slow and build up to longer exercise sessions.
Read here to learn how to begin an exercise routine that works for you.
6) Limit your Sun Exposure
Although the sun is a good source of vitamin D, too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin cancer. Every year, there are about 90,000 new cases of melanoma of the skin, causing about 9,000 deaths.15 Skin cancer can be prevented by consistently using sun protection (even on cloudy days) and avoiding artificial sources of UV radiation such as tanning beds and sun lamps. To learn more about sun safety, read this article.
7) Take Advantage of Effective Disease Screening
In spite of our best efforts to stay healthy, we may all develop diseases, but early detection can make a tremendous difference in how well diseases are treated. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends several screening tests including mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopy, and cholesterol and blood pressure checks to detect and treat early signs of disease.
To learn more about when you should begin getting these screenings, see the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s recommendations.
8) Make it Happen
It is important to make an honest assessment about your health habits, because deciding where you realistically need to concentrate your efforts is essential to improving your health.
Take these suggestions one step at a time, and remember that improving your health requires effort, willpower, and a real commitment to make long-term changes in your health. You don’t have to do it all at once, and an occasional lapse doesn’t mean you can’t start again. Every change becomes easier as it becomes more firmly incorporated into your familiar routine.
The resources listed in each of the sections above can provide you with some valuable assistance to get started and keep moving toward a healthier lifestyle and longer life. The results will certainly be worth the effort.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.
- Christensen, J. US life expectancy is still on the decline. Here’s why. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/26/health/us-life-expectancy-decline-study/index.html. November 2019.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014.
- Carter BD, Abnet CC, Feskanich D, Freedman ND, Hartge P, Lewis CE, Ockene JK, Prentice RL, Speizer FE, Thun MJ, Jacobs EJ. Smoking and mortality—beyond established causes. New England Journal of Medicine. 2015; 372(7):631-40.
- Jones ME, Schoemaker MJ, Wright LB, Ashworth A, Swerdlow AJ. Smoking and risk of breast cancer in the Generations Study cohort. Breast Cancer Research. 2017;19(1):118.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use and Your Health. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm. Updated December 2019.
- Shield KD, Soerjomataram I, Rehm J. Alcohol use and breast cancer: a critical review. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2016;40(6):1166-81.
- Mayo Clinic. Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/alcohol/art-20044551. Updated October 2019.
- International Food Information Council Foundation. 2020 Food & Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/2020-food-and-health-survey/. June 2020.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/our-work/food-and-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/
- Fiolet T, Srour B, Sellem L, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Méjean C, Deschasaux M, Fassier P, Latino-Martel P, Beslay M, Hercberg S. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. BMJ. 2018;360.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity and Overweight. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm. Updated February 2020.
- Mayo Clinic. Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389. Updated May 2019.
- Gilchrist SC, Howard VJ, Akinyemiju T, Judd SE, Cushman M, Hooker SP, Diaz KM. Association of Sedentary Behavior With Cancer Mortality in Middle-aged and Older US Adults. JAMA Oncology. 2020;6(8):1210–1217.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need?. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fphysicalactivity%2Feveryone%2Fguidelines%2Fadults.html. Updated May 2020.
- American Cancer Society. 2020 Estimates. https://cancerstatisticscenter.cancer.org/?_ga=2.70174867.2040992151.1522878312-1439572984.1522878312#!/. Updated 2020.