The Impact of Unhealthy Lifestyles on Life Expectancy and Early Onset Disability

Alison Rodriguez

In the United States, those with unhealthy lifestyle behaviors are likely to have a shorter life expectancy and experience an onset of disability sooner than those who do not participate in these behavioral risks, according to a study published in Health Affairs.
The study analyzed the long-term influence of behavioral risks, such as smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption, on adults later in life. Researchers collected data from the Health and Retirement Study, which consists of Americans of at least 50 years old and their spouses.
The sample included 14,804 respondents from ages 50 to 74 in 1998 and considered the deaths and disability states during the period of 2000 to 2012. The researchers intended to compare the presence of the behavioral risks to a control group of people who did not participate in such activities.
“Studying the effect of multiple health behaviors exercised simultaneously provides new insights into levels of health that are achievable without novel life-extending medical technologies,” the authors wrote.
At the beginning of the study period, about 26% of the sample were obese, 62% had smoked, 73% were considered heavy drinkers; 27% were in the low-risk category LRB1 (all non-obese people who had never smoked), and 7% of the sample were in the low-risk category LRB2 (non-obese people who never smoked and were moderate drinkers).
Each risk factor was found to be associated with early disability onset disability, which was defined as any limitations on performing activities like walking, dressing, getting in or out of bed, and eating. Obese men, on average, experienced this disability 3 years prior to their non-obese counterparts, and women experienced disability 6 years prior to their non-obese counterparts.
The research also concluded that obesity had little effect on overall life expectancy; however, men and women who had never smoked had a substantially longer overall and disability-free life expectancy than those who smoked. Non-obese men and women who never smoked lived, on average, 4 years longer and non-obese individuals who never smoked and were moderate drinkers lived an average of 7 years longer.
The study considers policy efforts on large scales that can influence individuals to avoid such behavioral risks that affect the health status of the older population. For example, the study references the Affordable Care Act, which demonstrates federal support of prevention through the Prevention and Public Health fund which works to improve health behaviors.
“The success of these and other policies in helping people maintain a healthy body weight and refrain from smoking and immoderate alcohol consumption will largely determine the future health and disability status of the aging US population,” the authors concluded.
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