How to Avoid the Biggest Health Risks

More Americans could escape an early death by replaying simple advice.


The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.

Heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses are responsible for about 70 percent of American deaths each year. And they all loom larger as we age.

But there's a lot you can do (or in the case of smoking, not do) to steer your fate away from these killers, or dull their impact if they arise. Exercise regularly, fill your plate with fruits and veggies, get enough sleep, say no to cigarettes—essentially everything your mother told you to do.


"People always want a quick fix in our culture," says Amy Locke, a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers. No such luck. If you want to avoid an early exit, it's time to replay those instructions from Mom.

[See: How 5 Longevity Researchers Stave off Aging]

Change your ways

Nothing kills more Americans each year than heart disease, which occurs when fatty substances clog the vessels to your heart. The best preventive: a healthy lifestyle.

Abiding by six or more of the American Heart Association's "cardiovascular health metrics"—not smoking, being physically active, maintaining a healthy diet and weight, as well as normal levels of blood pressure, blood sugar, and total cholesterol—seems to make people about 75 percent less likely to die of heart disease than by adhering to only one or none, suggests a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, people who checked off at least six of these boxes were about half as likely to die from anything at all over the median follow-up period of 14.5 years as those who did one or none.

If a lifestyle overhaul seems overwhelming, remember that adopting even a few good habits is better than doing nothing. "It's about taking it one step at a time," says Locke.

And you can take that literally. Just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity like brisk walking five days a week can reduce your risk of premature death from leading causes like heart disease and cancer, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[See: Your Guide to Exercising Through the Ages]

A near-surefire way to forestall your trip to the grave is to stop smoking. Lighting up not only increases your risk of heart disease, but also significantly boosts your odds of dying from lung cancer, the No. 1 cause of cancer death in the United States. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that never-smoking men lived an average of 10 years longer than those with a pack-a-day habit. But quitting at any age still may add years to your life. People who stop smoking at age 35 gain about seven extra years, while those who quit at age 65 can tack on an extra one to four, research suggests.

While you're at it, ease up on the bottle. Excessive alcohol intake—any more than one drink a day for women and two a day for men—over time can contribute to liver cancer and has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death among women. Buckling up and seeking help for depression can also be life-savers. Among men, accidents and suicide are the third and seventh leading causes of death, respectively.

Know yourself

Statistically speaking, simply being American means you've got a good shot of dying from a chronic illness. But you aren't a statistic—you're an individual. How do you know which diseases might knock at your door but pass by your neighbor's?

"All diseases have genetic and environmental components," says Locke. "So you can do what you can to modify the environmental risks and you can be knowledgeable of your personal risks."

Knowing your personal risks means tracking your family history and being aware of how factors like gender, age, race, and ethnicity can affect both your disease vulnerability and the quality of your care. White women, for example, are more likely than black women to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but black women are more likely to die from it.