The elixir of long life is pretty simple stuff. Exercise, eat well, avoid stress, stop smoking and take preventive medications. But how exactly do these and other things we can do affect our body's vital organs? If you are embarking on a health change journey or are already on the road, here are some tips and scientific findings to support the modifications in your behavior. Medical science is incremental in nature, so a single study is rarely the final word; the associations that come from observational studies are sometimes overturned by later trials. Read the numbers prudently and consult with your doctor before making changes.
Heart health problem: high blood pressure
Normal blood pressure is below 120/80, while high blood pressure is 140/90 or higher. Reducing blood pressure lowers the risk of heart disease and increases longevity: For every increase of 20 points in systolic blood pressure (the top number) and 10 points of diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), the likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease doubles. So, a drop from 150/90 to 130/80 (not a huge change) makes you far less likely to die from heart disease. People at age 50 with normal blood pressure live five years longer on average than those with higher blood pressure.
Diet: One study showed that people who reduced the fat in their diet to 26 percent and increased fruit, juices and vegetables to 9.6 servings per day cut their systolic pressure by 5.5 points and diastolic pressure by 3 points. The percentage of fat in the average American's diet is 37 percent.
Exercise: If you are overweight, lose 22 pounds and your systolic blood pressure will decline by 5 to 20 points. Regular exercise, such as brisk walking for 30 minutes most days, can drop your systolic blood pressure by 4 to 9 points.
Medication: In a 1992 study, 4,396 patients who received a beta blocker and a diuretic for high blood pressure had on average a 19 percent reduction in coronary events such as heart attacks and a 25 percent reduction in strokes.
Cholesterol problem: the right numbers
Cholesterol is measured as milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dl) of blood. It contains "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins, or LDL), which increases your risk of coronary heart disease, and good cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins, or HDL), which lowers your risk of coronary heart disease.
Ideally, you want your LDL to be less than 100 mg/dl and HDL more than 40 mg/dl.
People who have cholesterol levels in the normal range live longer than those with elevated cholesterol. Physicians refer to the rule of 1 percent: For every 1 percent increase in the HDL and/or 1 percent decline in LDL, there is 1 percent lower risk of developing coronary artery disease.
Diet: A 1997 study of 444 men found that those who replaced an average American diet with a reduced-fat diet (26 percent fat) experienced a 13.4 percent drop in LDL.
Exercise: In a 2002 study of 111 sedentary, overweight men and women, those who exercised intensively (the equivalent of jogging 20 miles a week) saw their good cholesterol, or HDL, rise to 48.6 from 44.3.
Medication: A Scandinavian study of 4,444 patients with heart disease found that those given a cholesterol-lowering statin drug had a death rate of 8 percent over five years, compared with 12 percent for those on a placebo. Also, the rate of major coronary events (such as heart attack) was 19 percent for the statin group, but 28 percent for the placebo group.
One study of 22,071 physicians without a history of heart disease placed some participants on a low dose of aspirin (325 mg every other day). Over five years, the group taking aspirin had a 44 percent lower incidence of heart attack. People older than 50 saw the most benefit.
Brain health problem: Alzheimer's
Most people fear the loss of their mental faculties even more than their physical health.
One in every eight people 65 and older has Alzheimer's.
The rate rises to one in two for people older than 85, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Although no study has found a silver bullet that will prevent dementia, more and more researchers think there are things you can do to protect your brain as you age.
Exercise: An observational study of 1,740 adults older than 65 showed that 13 people per thousand developed Alzheimer's dementia among those who exercised three times or more per week. For those who got the least exercise, the rate was 20 per thousand.
Medication: Individuals with high cholesterol who took statins had a 71 percent lower rate of dementia compared with those not on statins. A study of nearly 7,000 adults older than 55 who were followed for seven years had an 80 percent lower risk of Alzheimer's dementia if they had received nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen for more than two years.
Manoj Jain is an infectious disease physician and a clinical assistant professor at University of Tennessee at Memphis.