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With the 2020 election cycle kicking into high gear, you’ll be hearing a lot about healthcare. Politicians will be talking about all the great things they will do for healthcare, but they won’t be saying one thing that everyone needs to hear: We all need to take better care of ourselves.

Proposed long-term solutions to the healthcare crisis in this country range from Medicare-for-all to standardized pricing for individual services, but none of those proposed solutions are within our control as individuals.

What is in our control is our personal lifestyle habits and choices. Our dietary habits and physical activity will do more to determine our long-term healthcare costs—and our long-term health—than any government plan.

According to the World Health Organization, 60% of factors related to individual health and quality of life are connected to lifestyle. Another study of more than 500,000 people over more than 13 years found that over half of premature deaths were due to unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Poor lifestyle choices, including an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and abuse of illegal or prescription drugs, can cause numerous health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer.

An analysis conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health using health data from more than 120,000 people over more than 25 years showed that abiding by five key healthy habits significantly improve overall health and lower healthcare costs. 

Those five healthy habits are:

  • A healthy diet focused on vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, with a minimum of red and processed meats, sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium
  • At least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day
  • A healthy body weight, with a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9
  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men

The study showed that people who met all five healthy habit criteria at age 50 enjoyed better health and a longer lifespan than those who did not—healthy women in the study lived an average of 14 years longer than their unhealthy counterparts, and healthy men lived 12 years longer. Adopting even one of the healthy habits could extend life expectancy by 2 years in both genders.

Not only will a healthy lifestyle make you feel better and live longer, it can go a long way toward addressing the skyrocketing healthcare costs in the United States.

Obesity, for instance, is a condition that is often due, at least in part, to lifestyle choices. According to the latest data from the American Medical Association, almost 40% of Americans are obese. Obese adults spend 42% more on healthcare costs than adults who are a healthy weight, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cost of obesity and associate health problems are an estimated $147 billion to $210 billion per year.

Healthcare costs for people with hypertension (high blood pressure), another condition that can be caused or exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices, is $131 billion higher than healthcare costs for those without hypertension.

Illnesses related to smoking cost $170 billion in direct medical care in the United States every year, plus an additional $156 billion in lost productivity.

Scientists continue to come up with new ways to prevent and treat a wide range of diseases, but for diseases related to lifestyle habits, the cure is simple—make healthy choices.

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