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A healthy lifestyle can mitigate genetic risk for early death by 62%, study suggests

A healthy lifestyle could add 5.5 years to a person with a predisposition for a short lifespan, the study said. (EMS-Forster Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images via CNN Newsource) A healthy lifestyle could add 5.5 years to a person with a predisposition for a short lifespan, the study said. (EMS-Forster Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)
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Even if your genetics put you at greater risk for early death, a healthy lifestyle could help you significantly combat it, according to a new study.

That risk could be mitigated by about 62% in people with a genetic predisposition, said lead author Dr. Xifeng Wu, dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China.

Many studies have shown the connection between a healthy lifestyle and longevity and others have underscored the genetic component in lifespan, but the report published Monday in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine explored how the two come together.

With data from more than 350,000 people and information on their genetics, education, socioeconomic status and disease history, this study had a strong methodology, said Dr. Aladdin Shadyab, associate professor of public health and medicine at the University of California San Diego. He was not involved in the research.

The sample was made up of people with European ancestry so it is limited in the populations to which it can be applied, Shadyab added.

The researchers gave each individual a polygenetic risk score, which is a score summarizing the presence of multiple genes found to impact human lifespan, according to the study. The study participants also received a score based on how they adhered to healthy lifestyle tenets, and then were followed for an average of 13 years to see if they had a short, intermediate or long lifespan.

Everyone, regardless of their genetic risks, were 78% more likely to die early if they had an unhealthy lifestyle, the data showed.

And people with both a genetic risk for a short lifespan and an unhealthy lifestyle were twice as likely to die early as those without genetic risk and healthier lifestyles, said Wu, who is also director of National Institute for Data Science in Health and Medicine of Zhejiang University.

Individuals with genetic risk could extend their lifespan by up to 5.5 years with a healthy lifestyle, the data showed.

“Adherence to a healthy lifestyle could substantially attenuate the lifespan reduction for individuals with genetic susceptibility to a shorter lifespan,” Wu said.

The factors that made a difference

The study was observational, meaning that it could determine associations but could not say for sure that the behaviours were the direct cause of the changes in lifespan.

But researchers were able to identify four factors that were associated with the biggest impact on risk of early death.

“The study identified an optimal lifestyle combination containing four lifestyle factors — no current smoking, regular physical activity, adequate sleep duration, and a healthy diet — that offered better benefits for prolonging human lifespan,” Wu said.

Adequate sleep was defined in the study as seven to eight hours a night. The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity and two days of strength training a week for adults.

Moderate drinking in the U.S. is defined as a limit of two drinks in a day for adult men and one drink in a day for adult women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Making lifestyle changes

Building a healthier lifestyle may sound like a major undertaking, but manageable steps can help you get there.

There are phone helplines, apps and support groups that can help you quit smoking.

Committing to alcohol-free days or even challenges such as Dry January or Sober October can help you reassess your relationship with alcohol and reset your habits around it, journalist Rosamund Dean, author of “Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life,” said in a previous CNN article.

For a healthier, longer life, many studies have shown support for the Mediterranean diet, a style of eating that focuses on plant-based cooking heavy on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and olive oil. Red meat is used sparingly.

When it comes to catching enough z’s, if you can’t seem to get those seven or eight hours of sleep, try establishing a sleep routine, getting out of bed when you can’t sleep, and keeping the bedroom cool, dark and free of electronics.

And if you’ve tried and failed to build an exercise routine you can stick to, make it a part of your everyday routine, starting slowly and choosing an activity you enjoy to get your exercise.

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