You’re never too old!

Chalk this one up to it’s never too late. If you or someone you know is 75 or older, listen up! New research shows simple lifestyle choices could add over 5 years to your life.

There have been many studies that have examined lifestyle, social networks, and leisure activities in relation to longevity. But few have looked at the impact they can have when all three factors are combined and in relation to actual mortality. And the difference is significant.

Researchers followed 1,810 adults over the age of 75 for 18 years. They looked at various behaviors and how they impacted the length of survival. Following are the three key categories they analyzed:

  1. Lifestyle — such as age, sex, occupation, and education as well as smoking habits and alcohol consumption.
  2. Leisure activities — such as reading, writing, painting, swimming, walking, gymnastics, theater, art, and travel among other hobbies.
  3. Social networks — such as participation in social groups, marital status, living arrangements, parenthood, and friendships.

Researchers also looked at combinations of the above in relation to those with chronic health conditions.

Of course, since we’re talking about an 18-year study of people 75 and older, most of the participants died during follow-up (over 90%). However, the average lifespan was 96 years, which is good to hear. If we are going to continue to increase our life span, then who wouldn’t want to know what to do to live that life as richly as possible!

Overall, after age 75, lifestyle behaviors such as never smoking, participating in at least one leisure activity, and having frequent contact with children or friends and relatives (and being satisfied with this contact) were linked with a longer life.

Those in the lowest-risk group lived an average of 5.4 years longer than those in the highest-risk group. The lowest-risk group included those who had a healthy lifestyle, had a rich or moderate social network, and engaged in at least one leisure activity. The high-risk group included those who had an unhealthy lifestyle (were overweight or underweight and were current or former smokers), a limited or poor social network, and did not engage in any leisure activities.

Age at death was 1 year younger in current smokers than in nonsmokers. However, survival in former smokers was similar to that of never-smokers, suggesting that smoking cessation in middle age could lessen the effect of smoking on mortality. Again it’s never too late to change an unhealthy behavior into a healthy one.

Of course, of all the leisure activities, physical activity was most strongly associated with survival. Those participants who regularly engaged in some form of exercise, like walking or swimming, lived an average of 2 years longer.

And the same benefits held true for the oldest participants. Those 85 years old or older with a low-risk profile lived an average 4 years longer than those with a high-risk profile.

It’s also interesting to note that those who drank alcohol lived 1.3 years longer than those who never drank.

And finally, for those with chronic health conditions…benefits of the low-risk group compared to the high-risk group held up. Those with chronic conditions in the low-risk group lived 5 years longer.

I could go on and one with all the interesting details of this study. But the message it sends is clear…

First, if you’re 75 and over and you are still trying to get motivated to get up, get moving, and to get involved–consider this your wake-up call. Do it now. Join a gym, start a new hobby, and look to expand your social network.

Second, you need to show this Reality Health Check to everyone you know who thinks it’s too late to start trying now…or that it doesn’t matter anymore…or who are just stuck in their ways.

And if you have to, go grab a grandparent, parent, or friend and drag them to the gym with you–it’s the least you can do.

“Lifestyle, social factors, and survival after age 75: population based study.” BMJ 2012;345:e5568 (Published online 30 August 2012)