More than 60 years ago, a Midwestern doctor named Lester Breslow dreamed of bringing a “broader vision” to public health by emphasizing the importance of healthy habits in preventing disease. But when he applied to join the California state public health department, he was rejected with a dismissive suggestion to “take his crazy ideas back to Minnesota and try them there.”
Fortunately for the world, Dr. Breslow didn’t give up easily. He was eventually brought into the department, where he and his colleagues conducted a groundbreaking study that would change the face of medicine forever. They studied nearly 7,000 residents of Alameda County to see how closely they followed what Dr. Breslow considered the seven most important habits for healthy living.
Sure enough, the team found that people in midlife who followed at least six of the habits could expect to live 11 years longer than people the same age who followed fewer than four. A 60-year-old who followed all seven practices would be as healthy as a 30-year-old who followed fewer than three.
Dr. Breslow practiced what he preached, living until he was 97, passing away this April.
Here are Dr. Breslow’s seven habits for healthy living and a longer life:
• Stop smoking. Dr. Breslow was one of the first researchers to prove a link between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in five deaths in the U.S. – 443,000 in all – is directly attributable to smoking. A smoker can expect to live 11 to 14 years less than a nonsmoker.
• Exercise regularly. If you’re a couch potato, you’re setting yourself up for a host of troubles, from obesity and joint problems to diabetes and heart disease. Getting active will make you feel better and improve your health as well. One recent study found that as little as 15 minutes a day of physical activity can reduce your risk of dying by 14 percent. Another study shows that daily moderate to high levels of exercise can increase your lifespan by nearly four years.
• Drink moderately or not at all. Studies have shown that one alcoholic drink a day can reduce your risk of heart disease and increase levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL. But if you don’t ordinarily drink, don’t start (Dr. Breslow was a teetotaler). And if you do drink, limit yourself to one 5-ounce glass of wine or liquor (or 12 ounces of beer) if you’re a woman; two if you’re a man.
• Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can do more than just make you groggy in the morning. It can weaken your immune system, lead to depression, and even increase your risk of certain cancers. Aim for at least seven hours of sleep a night, and talk to your doctor if you regularly have trouble falling or staying asleep.
• Eat regular meals. Skipping meals or saving your biggest meals for late in the day can lead to weight gain and diabetes. Why? Severe hunger makes your metabolism sluggish, making it hard to take off weight.
• Maintain a healthy weight. You know that obesity raises the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. What you may not realize is that being overweight is tied to many more conditions: certain cancers, joint and back pain, depression, fatty liver disease, and sleep disorders, just to name a few.
• Eat breakfast. There’s a reason it’s called “the most important meal of the day.” Not only does eating in the morning help you lose weight, it also boosts your energy level, kick-starts your metabolism and improves memory and concentration. Just be sure your breakfast consists of healthy fare like whole-grain cereal, egg whites, and fruit.