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Women: Want to Add Years to Your Life?

Key lifestyle changes can keep you living longer and healthier
Women: Want to Add Years to Your Life?: Main Image
Important factors that could be changed were smoking, being in poor shape, having fat concentrated in the abdominal area, and having high blood pressure

We know that being overweight, smoking, and having high blood pressure or diabetes all contribute to poor health. But how do these different factors affect a woman's chance of dying?

That question was addressed by a team of researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health and Human Services, who identified several factors that may lengthen or shorten a woman's life span.

"Our goal was to assess the relative strength and joint contributions of factors on the risk of death in postmenopausal women," the team said. They were particularly interested in factors affecting life expectancy that can be changed, such as diet or exercise habits.

The most important factors for living longer

The women who took part in the study were part of the larger Fracture Intervention Trial. Close to 18,000 women (with an average age of 68) answered questions about their health and dietary habits and gave detailed information about their medical history.

The most important risk factors that could be changed were smoking, being in poor physical shape, having more fat concentrated in the abdominal area, and having high blood pressure. It is interesting to note that women who were underweight were at an increased risk of dying, and heavier women had a lower risk--but only if they didn't carry their weight around their midsections.

What you can do to improve your odds for a long life

Fortunately, several lifestyle changes can increase your chances of a long, healthy life:

  • Maintain a healthy weight--Especially aim to lose that tummy fat, as studies have shown that this type of fat distribution leads to heart disease.
  • Get in shape--Exercise decreases the chances of diabetes, heart disease, and being overweight. It also helps balance blood sugar levels, lowers blood pressure and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, and raises HDL ("good") cholesterol levels.
  • Don't smoke--By not smoking, you could drastically reduce your chances of dying from cancer or heart disease.
  • Keep tabs on your blood pressure--By getting regular exercise, not smoking, and eating a healthful diet, you can help keep your blood pressure at an optimal level.

Of these factors, smoking stood out as particularly hazardous. Smoking causes lung cancer, which accounted for more than 25% of cancer deaths among the women. It also causes chronic respiratory illnesses like emphysema and contributes to heart disease. "The strong association of smoking with mortality is a critical reminder that smoking is the most important modifiable risk factor that physicians and society should address, even in older women," the researchers said.

(Arch Intern Med 2006;2469-77)
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women's health.