People who are happy, have an active sex life and who avoid debts outlive the miserable, abstainers and the poor, as do chocolate eaters, church-goers and vegetarians. New research shows exactly how many years longer people can live by adopting healthy behaviours from stopping smoking and losing weight to eating less meat and being positive.
A Harvard University study that monitored 600 people for 60 years, shows that seven lifestyle factors are key to determining how well we age: avoiding alcohol abuse, not smoking, having a stable marriage, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, developing good coping mechanisms and pursuing education. "Successful ageing isn't simply a matter of genes or fate.
Making healthy choices can pave the way for a long, vital life," say the authors of the study. "How well you age will help dictate how long you stay alive and how happy you are to do so." Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that adopting four healthy behaviours - exercising regularly, eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, not smoking and drinking moderately - could be worth an extra 14 years.
Research also shows how important marriage is, adding up to a decade to life - at least for men, whose average life expectancy in New Zealand is 78.1 years. For women, who have a life expectancy in New Zealand of 82.2 years, the picture is more complex, with some research suggesting that the stress and strain of living with a man can take years off a woman's life.
Be a winner
Nobel Prizewinning scientists live nearly two years longer than those who were nominated but who lost out, according to a Warwick University study. Winning an Oscar can also add years, according to Toronto University researchers who studied all the actors to win an award. Winners lived four years longer on average, while double winners bagged an extra six years. One theory is that high social status had a positive effect.
Studies suggest that dark chocolate is good for the heart and lifespan. Research based on Harvard graduates showed chocolate eaters lived a year or so longer than those who do not indulge. Those who ate one to three bars a month came out best, with a 36 per cent lower risk of premature death. Antioxidants, especially in dark chocolate, may be responsible.
Have lots of sex
A number of studies have suggested that sex is good for health and longevity. A University of California study reported that it could add more than two years, while a Bristol University study showed that men who have frequent orgasms live longer. The risk of an earlier death in men who had sex twice or more a week was half that of men whose frequency was less than once a month. The physical exercise and mental sense of wellbeing are thought to be implicated.
Be religious and have friends
Regular attendance at church or chapel can be as good for the health as jogging. A study at the University of Pittsburgh showed that weekly attendance at a religious service added two to three years, compared with three to five for physical exercise and 2.5 to 3.5 years for people who take statins (drugs used to lower cholesterol levels).
"Regular religious attendance is comparable with commonly recommended therapies, and rough estimates suggest religious attendance may be more cost-effective than statins," say researchers. One theory is that it reduces stress levels or that the camaraderie increases the ability to cope with stress. A similar effect has been found for having friends.
Harvard University research shows that men and women who were less likely to attend church, travel, or take part in social activities were 20 per cent more likely to die early than those who socialised the most. Those who engaged least often in activities such as work, shopping, or gardening were 35 per cent more likely to die prematurely.
Eat less meat
Diets with low levels of meat and vegetarian diets have been linked to a lower risk of premature death. A review of research by public health specialists at Loma Linda University in the United States looked at the life expectancy of those who rarely ate meat less than weekly - and found that long-term adherence to such a diet added 3.6 years to life. "Results raise the possibility that a lifestyle pattern that includes a very low meat intake is associated with greater longevity," they say. The health effect may be due to lower saturated fat intake and higher antioxidant levels as a consequence of eating more fruit and vegetables.
Moderate to high levels of activity can extend life by between 1.3 and 3.7 years. Researchers at Erasmus University in the Netherlands say the main reason is the beneficial effect that physical activity has on the heart. Exercise also means people are less likely to be overweight and have improved quality of life.
Regular drinking of small amounts of wine can add four years to life for a man, according to a Dutch study. Researchers from Wageningen University found that men who drank about half a glass of wine a day were 38 per cent less likely to die prematurely. The researchers suggest that a small amount of wine may be good for the heart and that it may prevent blood clots and also boost levels of good cholesterol.
Have low blood pressure and cholesterol
Having low blood pressure and cholesterol levels are associated with a four-year-longer life span, according to a Yale University report.
Be educated and play golf
Highly educated women can expect to live more than five years longer than their less-educated contemporaries, while men with a university degree have an extra 7.8 years, according to a Harvard University study. Adoption of healthier lifestyles is one explanation, and one of the biggest differences was in heart disease rates.
A Danish study found more modest increases in life expectancy - 2.7 years for well-educated men and 2.2 years for well-educated women. Other research shows that men and women with PhDs live longer than those with Masters degrees, who in turn outlast those with a Bachelors degree.
Research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows that golfers live five years longer. The study shows a 40 per cent reduced risk of a premature end. Exercise may be partly responsible, but the health benefits of companionship are implicated too.
Adopting a diet proposed by researchers at Erasmus University could increase life expectancy by 6.6 years. The diet involves daily consumption of dark chocolate, almonds, fruits and vegetables, garlic and wine and fish four times a week. This, say the researchers, could cut heart disease risk by 76 per cent. "It promises to be an effective safe, cheap, and tasty alternative to reduce cardiovascular disease and increase life expectancy in the general population," they say.
Losing weight can add as much as seven years to life. A team at Oxford University showed that people who are obese at the age of 40 with body mass index or BMI greater than 30 died, on average, seven years earlier. A Harvard study found that people who gained no more than 2.2kg between age 20 and midlife had one third the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and gallstones as men and women who put on between 5kg and 10kg.
Study based on 660 people aged over 50 shows that those who had a more positive take on life and ageing lived on average 7.5 years longer than the grouches. Results from the 23-year Yale University study are supported by work in the Netherlands which shows that optimists also live longer. Optimists had a 55 per cent lower risk of early death. Researchers say pessimistic people may be more prone to developing habits and problems that cut life short, such as smoking, obesity and high blood pressure.
Not smoking adds up to 10 years to life. A team at the University of Helsinki found that those who had never smoked lived an average 10 years longer than those who smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day. Research on New Zealand men showed that 50 per cent of smokers die prematurely, 14 years earlier than non-smokers. Heart disease, strokes and cancer are among the biggest killers.
The good news for smokers is that it is never too late to give up, according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 35-year-old man who quits smoking will, on average, increase his life expectancy by 5.1 years, it says. A study at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam showed that even men who underwent heart surgery lived three years longer if they gave up smoking after the operation.
10 YEARS (men)
According to a Chicago University report, married men live, on average, 10 years longer than non-married men, while married women live about four years longer than non-married women. One theory is that men who marry add years to their life because they adopt less risky and more healthy lifestyles as a result of the commitment brought on by marriage. Married women may live longer due to improved combined financial wellbeing as a result of marriage. However, one Swiss study found that being married shortens a woman's life by 1.4 years, possibly due to the stress and strain of living with a man. According to an Australian government report, never marrying increases the risk of death over the next 10 years by 10.6 per cent, while being separated or divorced increases it by 9.4 per cent.
A study based on nuns shows that the happiest lived a decade longer than the miserable. The two-year study at the University of Kentucky, found happy nuns were also less likely to develop Alzheimer's. One theory is that happy people are more likely to spot when they are ill and seek help, and are less likely to be stressed.
Change your lifestyle
Changing four behaviours can add 14 years to life expectancy, according to a study of people over 45 by Cambridge University. Researchers found that those who exercised regularly, ate five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, didn't smoke, and had a moderate alcohol consumption lived an average of 14 years longer.
Live in the right neighbourhood
Wealthy people live longer than the poor. US health officials found that in poor neighbourhoods, average life expectancy was 20 years lower than those in wealthy suburbs.