April 26, 2010 -- People who smoke, don’t exercise, eat poorly, and drink alcohol are three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and nearly four times more likely to die of cancer, a new study finds.
Such people also have an overall premature death risk equivalent to being 12 years older, when compared with people who do not engage in these four behaviors, according to the study, reported in the April 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
Many studies have examined the individual effects of smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, and drinking alcohol, and have established that they are independently associated with poorer health. However, few studies have examined the combined influence of these behaviors. This is important because people often engage in multiple poor lifestyle choices that could shorten their life span.
“To fully understand the public health impact of these behaviors, it is necessary to examine both their individual and combined impact on health outcomes,” Elisabeth Kvaavik, PhD, of the University of Oslo in Norway and her colleagues write in the study.
The researchers interviewed 4,886 randomly selected people aged 18 or older in 1984 to 1985 who lived in the United Kingdom. A health behavior score was calculated by giving one point for each unhealthy behavior: smoking; eating fruits and vegetables less than three times a day; exercising less than two hours a week; and drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week for women, and more than 21 units per week for men.
The average age of the participants was 43.7 years at study entry, and the group was split about equally between men and women. The participants were then tracked for the next two decades. Over the course of 20 years, 1,080 participants died -- 431 from cardiovascular disease, 318 from cancer, and 331 from other causes. The researchers found that compared with participants who did not have any unhealthy behaviors, the risk of death from all causes as well as from each cause increased substantially with each additional unhealthy behavior.
When looking at the behaviors individually, the study also showed that smoking was more strongly associated to cancer and other deaths, whereas physical inactivity was more strongly associated with death from cardiovascular disease.
“Modest but achievable adjustments to lifestyle behaviors are likely to have a considerable impact at both the individual and population level,” the researchers conclude.