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Utahns unhealthy — and know better

Bad habits shave years, hurt quality of life, Y. prof says

Deseret Morning News graphic

Americans are shaving years off their lives and quality time from their years by making unhealthy lifestyle choices. And Utahns are no different.

To a degree, we choose when and how we will die. We decide when we sit on the couch instead of going for a walk, when we load up on sugars and greasy foods but never eat fruits and vegetables. When we light up.

Seventy percent of deaths are lifestyle-related and thus preventable. That means those deaths are also premature, according to Steven G. Aldana, professor at BYU's College of Health and Human Performance and a recognized expert on lifestyle and longevity.

"There's a gap between what we know and what we do," Aldana said in a address to the fifth annual IHC Healthy Communities Conference, Wednesday at the Salt Lake Hilton.

With the exception of smoking (23 percent nationally, 12.8 percent in Utah), Utah is very similar to the rest of the nation in many lifestyle choices, according to Aldana's data. On average, 20.6 percent of Utahns get their five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Nationally, it's 22.6 percent. Nationally, slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans tip the scales on the heavy to obese side. In Utah, it's slightly less than 1 in 5. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans are inactive, while sedentary describes 74 percent of Utahns.

Fully 91 percent of diabetes cases are lifestyle-related and preventable. Four percent of Utahns have diabetes, compared to 6.7 percent nationally.

How do we die? Nearly one-third of Americans succumb to cancer. Just under half die of heart disease. And 70 percent of both those cancers and heart disease are lifestyle-related, Aldana said.

Recently, in an airport, Aldana saw posters showing that the automatic external defibrillators are everywhere, with simple instructions on how to use them. It would be more helpful, he said, to line the walls with fruits and vegetables to prevent the heart attacks in the first place.

Research puts a number value on human decisions. People who eat red meat more than once a week subtract 3.9 years from their lives, for instance, he said. A vegetarian lifestyle adds 1.5 years. Exercising regularly adds 2.5. One of the best things you can do is eat a fourth-cup of nuts five times a week, adding 2.5 years because of healthy fats and fiber. Some studies say obesity reduces life span by as much as 11-13 years.

And research shows that "you'll die sooner if you're inactive than if you're a smoker."

Adding 1.5 years to life may not seem like a lot, but "doing all the right behaviors" could make a difference of 20 years, Aldana said. More than that, the benefits can be seen in improved quality of life, less chronic disease, fewer medications, less hospital time and fewer surgeries.

American men live, on average, 74 years; women, 80. But Seventh-day Adventists, who eschew meat and have healthier lifestyles, live 83 and 86 years, respectively. A study of LDS high priests and their wives who get lots of sleep, don't smoke and exercise frequently says they average 85 and 87 years, respectively, he said.

Barring a quick, traumatic death, people who live to old age have a point at which disability sets in. It could begin with an event, such as a fall and a broken hip. Then problems build and compound until death. With a healthy lifestyle, he said, that onset of disability is delayed, the problems compressed and lessened.

He's hoping to be snowboarding at age 94 with his great-grandchildren when he hits a tree and dies 10 minutes later, Aldana said.

Heralding the link between health and habit sounds simple, but it's a discouraging message to deliver for someone who has studied the effects of lifestyle on health. "I'm pretty convinced that most people really don't care," Aldana said. They think they can do what they want, the doctor will fix them up — perhaps put a stent in a blocked artery — and they'll have an extra five years.

Making needed changes alters the future, he said. "The ability to reverse disease even once it sets up is promising," Aldana said.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com