No doubt you would expect my answer to be a resounding confirmation that lifestyle matters. But really, how much difference does lifestyle make? As it happens, a positive lifestyle can make an astounding difference in how long you will live and the quality of life you will enjoy over those years.
As you might expect, doctors are not the only ones with an interest in lifestyle. Insurance companies bet billions of dollars every year that they can estimate your lifespan based on your lifestyle. Considering the number of insurance companies that are still making a profit, it’s safe to assume they are getting it right most of the time.
Although the exact formulas used by insurance are usually trade secrets, we can get a pretty good estimate by looking at data from the sources insurance companies get most of their information from. As you might expect, much of the information insurance companies use comes from Government statistics and population studies that take place in universities and medical research centers. From this data, many consumer-friendly lifespan calculators have been published. One typical life expectancy calculator is the Healthy Life Expectancy Calculator from the Goldenson Center at the University of Connecticut.
Using the Healthy Life Expectancy Calculator it’s easy to estimate the difference in lifespan and quality of life. Consider the predicted outcomes for a man, 70 years old with an excellent lifestyle vs. a man the same age with a very poor lifestyle.
For a man 70 years old with excellent lifestyle habits, he is predicted to have another 32 years of good health followed by about 2 unhealthy years.
For a man 70 years old with very poor lifestyle habits he is predicted to have about 3 more years of good health followed by about 3 years of very poor health.
The difference of 29 healthy years between the two lifestyles is quite a remarkable statement about the advantages of lifestyle.
For a female 50 years old with excellent lifestyle habits she might expect another 45 years of good health followed by about 4 unhealthy years.
For a female 50 years old with very poor lifestyle habits she might expect about 4 more years of good health followed by about 9 years of very poor health.
For both of these examples, lifespan estimates were calculated for the most optimistic and least optimistic outcomes. While the lifestyle changes required for the most optimistic outcomes may be more than you will strive for, getting 80% of the maximum health benefits lifestyle changes afforded might be attainable with modest lifestyle changes.
For a female with excellent lifestyle habits at age 70, the future looks even better than at age 50. At 70, life expectancy is 102 healthy years followed by 2 years of poor health. Although women usually live longer than men, for those in their 90s, lifespan going forward is about the same for both.
If curious about where you can get the greatest advantages from lifestyle changes, the Healthy Life Expectancy Calculator offers insight. Keep in mind that estimates of lifespan and quality of life are largely based on population statistics and may not be applicable for individual situations.
For another estimate, try the LifeSpan Calculator from Northwestern Mutual. This calculator has a tantalizing feature. As you answer the 14 lifestyle questions, your estimated longevity is updated on a scoreboard. You may find this scoreboard to be motivational feedback about how lifestyle choices and health factors impact how long you will live.
If you have tried the previous two calculators and found the estimates different, know that all estimates are based on assumptions. A difference of 10% to 20% is not unusual. In a situation of uncertainty, often the best solution is a third expert opinion. Then you have the choice of averaging the three answers or perhaps discarding the outlier estimate before averaging. If feeling optimistic, shoot for the stars and be the shining example others can follow. Our community and our country could use quite a few more good examples. If leadership is your calling know that the example you show is not only the best way to lead, it’s the only way to lead.
So, if interested in a third opinion, try the Longevity Calculator based on research from Harvard Medical School’s study of centenarians. As you answer questions, notice how the effects add to or subtract from your final estimated lifespan.
While you can find many more calculators that estimate lifespan based on lifestyle, I’ve chosen only from the ones that allow you to perform calculations without having to provide identifying information.
Dr. Valter Longo, author of “The Longevity Diet,” provides a sensible guide for living longer with a better quality of life. His research on fasting is fascinating and encouraging for anyone seeking new strategies to improve health and longevity.
What separates Dr. Valter Longo’s approach from fads are Dr. Longo’s decades of research, his commitment to peer review of his data, and a five-pronged methodical approach for assessing the value of data that the recommendations have been drawn from.
There is so much joy in a healthy life. Granted we can’t all enjoy the optimum but, for most, we can far exceed our current situation. The key to health and longevity is simple enough, change your lifestyle and you can change your life. For a kickstart, join me Saturday morning for a brisk walk around the lakes. While mornings may still be cool, have no fear. An extra sweater might be all the cool weather insurance you need.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
This plant-based whole food kugel uses chia seeds (or ground flaxseeds) in place of the eggs found in traditional kugel. To create a wonderful visual contrast, use purple sweet potatoes along with yellow and orange varieties. (Note that sweet potatoes are often labeled as “yams.”) Serve the kugel with Tofu Sour Cream on the side.