"What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health," lead researcher Peter Elwood said. "Healthy behaviors have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure."
The study, conducted by researcher from the Cardiff University and published in the journal PLOS ONE, followed 2,235 men from south Wales for 35 years, starting in 1979. The men, aged 45 to 49 at the study's start, answered regular questions about their lifestyle and health throughout the study.
The researchers found that five factors were most important in reducing rates of all chronic diseases, including dementia: regular exercise, healthy diet, low body weight, low alcohol intake and not smoking. Compared with people who followed none of these five factors, people who followed any four were 60 percent less likely to suffer from dementia or cognitive decline and 70 percent less likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease or stroke.
"The size of reduction in the instance of disease owing to these simple healthy steps has really amazed us and is of enormous importance in an ageing population," Elwood said.
Improve your health todayThe single biggest connection found was that between exercise and dementia, yet Elwood emphasized that an overall healthy lifestyle is more important than any one component.
"Exercise happens to be the most important but the other factors come in very close behind," he said.
Yet, increasing your physical activity level might be one of the easiest ways to improve your overall health. It takes only 30 minutes of exercise five days a week to reap significant benefits.
"We should all live a more active lifestyle," Elwood said. "If I park my car a mile from work - that makes me likely to do more than the half an hour a day. Any exercise has some benefit and the more, the better."
"Sadly, the evidence from this study shows that very few people follow a fully healthy lifestyle," Elwood said.
The researchers found that, even with reductions in overall smoking rates over the past 35 years, the number of people who qualified as living a healthy lifestyle did not change during the course of the study. This is consistent with recent surveys finding that less than 1 percent of the population of Wales follows all five recommended factors, with 5 percent not following any.
"If the men [in the study] had been urged to adopt just one additional healthy behavior at the start of the study 35 years ago, and if only half of them complied, then during the ensuing 35 years there would have been a 13 percent reduction in dementia, a 12 percent drop in diabetes, 6 percent less vascular disease and a 5 percent reduction in deaths," Elwood said.
The researchers also found that, over the course of the study, unhealthy living was responsible for 10 percent of all healthcare expenditure in Wales.
Dementia is a growing public health concern, expected to affect 135 million people worldwide by 2050.
"We are facing potentially large increases in the numbers of people living with dementia and if we are to deal with this crisis head on we must invest in research," said Rebecca Wood, chief executive of Alzheimer's Research UK.
"It's encouraging for people to know there are simple steps they can take now to reduce their risk," she said.
Sources for this article include: