WEDNESDAY, July 24, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Seniors who don't exercise much, who smoke or who eat few fruits and vegetables are at increased risk for disability, according to a new study.
And the more unhealthy lifestyle habits they have, the more likely they are to develop problems that prevent them from being able to do the daily tasks required to live independently.
The study included nearly 4,000 people over age 65 in Dijon, France. They were interviewed about their lifestyle behaviors -- such as smoking, diet, physical activity and alcohol consumption -- and then followed for 12 years.
During the follow-up, 31 percent of the participants developed disabilities. They were older, more likely to be women and less educated, and had a worse health profile than those who did not develop disabilities.
People who had low or medium levels of physical activity had a 72 percent increased risk of disability, independent of other unhealthy habits. The increased risk was 26 percent for current smokers and those who recently quit, and 24 percent for those who ate fruits and vegetables less than once a day. People with all three unhealthy behaviors were twice as likely to develop disabilities.
There was no association between alcohol consumption and disability risk, according to the study, which was published online July 23 in the journal BMJ.
To determine levels of disability, researchers looked at how well participants could use a telephone, manage their money and medications, walk, climb stairs, do housework, shop, use private or public transportation, and perform personal care functions such as bathing and dressing.
About 30 percent of the association between unhealthy behaviors and disability was explained by factors such as higher body-mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight), mental decline, depression, chronic disease and cardiovascular disease, according to a journal news release.
Study author Alexis Elbaz, of France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and colleagues said their findings show that "an unhealthy lifestyle -- characterized by physical inactivity, unhealthy diet and smoking -- is associated with a greater hazard of disability." But, they said, people can change these behaviors.
The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines good health habits for people 60 and older.