TUESDAY, Sept. 16, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Women who don't smoke, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthful diet, and get regular physical exercise significantly reduce their risk of dying from any cause, and particularly from heart disease and cancer, Harvard University researchers report.
Although the finding seems obvious, the scientists hope that by showing the long-term results of healthy living, people will see lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of dying from diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
"Our findings suggest that the combination of lifestyle factors has a substantially larger impact on survival than any single factor," said lead researcher Rob M. van Dam, an assistant professor of medicine at Channing Laboratory, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.
Clearly, avoiding smoking is of major importance for health, but regular physical activity, a healthy diet and weight management can result in large additional health benefits, van Dam said. "The results of the study reinforces the need to strengthen public health efforts targeting smoking, as well as efforts that make it easier for people to maintain a healthy weight and diet and to perform regular physical activity," he said.
The report was published in the Sept. 17 online edition of the British Medical Journal.
For the study, van Dam's team collected data on 77,782 women who participated in the Brigham and Women's Hospital-based Nurses Health Study. Over 24 years starting in 1980, the women in the study responded to yearly questions about lifestyle and health. Over that time, 8,882 women died, 1,790 from heart disease and 4,527 from cancer.
For women who never smoked, ate a healthy diet, did not become overweight, and remained physically active, the researchers estimated the overall risk of death was reduced by 55 percent. In addition, these women had a 44 percent reduced risk of dying from cancer and a 72 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, van Dam's group found.
Looking at individual risk factors, the researchers calculated that 28 percent of the deaths were from smoking, 14 percent were from being overweight, 17 percent were due to lack of physical activity, and 13 percent to not eating a healthy diet. Among women who didn't smoke, 22 percent of the deaths were due to being overweight, the researchers noted.
In addition, 7 percent of the deaths were attributed to not drinking a light to moderate amount of alcohol, which was associated with a lower risk of dying from heart disease. However, heavy alcohol use was associated with a greater risk of dying from cancer.
"Adhering to advice regarding a combination of lifestyle factors -- nonsmoking, healthy diet and weight, regular physical activity -- can have a large impact on avoiding premature death," van Dam said. "This is true even for modest lifestyle changes such as 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking."
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women & Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said the message of this study is that women can take control of their health.
"In this study, we see the huge impact that these five aspects of life have on causes of death," Steinbaum said. "It's empowering. It allows us to understand that we have control of our lives, of our destiny," she said. "If you really do these things, you can live healthier, you can live longer, and your medical expenditures will actually be less."
It is important for women to understand the amount of control they have over their health, Steinbaum said. "You are not a victim. You don't age and go through menopause and become a sick old woman. That's not how it has to work. We have to understand that aging doesn't have to be associated with illness," she said.
Another expert thinks doctors need to do more to promote healthy living. "These findings are not novel," Dr. Jeffrey S. Berger, from the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Duke University, said. "But it really sends a very strong message to physicians and the community of the importance of routine activities that influence mortality."
The message is particularly important for doctors, Berger said. "Physicians have to see this and read this, and make it a part of their daily practice," he said.
In addition to writing prescriptions, in addition to talking about the latest drug, it is paramount for every physician to spend a significant amount of time with their patients discussing these facts, which are often overlooked, Berger added.
For more on women's health, visit the National Institutes of Health.