Four steps to a longer life

It's never too late to change - that was the message from scientists today as they published the findings of a study into the lifestyles of thousands of Norfolk residents.

It's never too late to change - that was the message from scientists today as they published the findings of a study into the lifestyles of thousands of Norfolk residents.

In the most comprehensive study of the region's health ever conducted, experts from Cambridge University have spent the last 13 years studying 30,000 men and women from Norfolk to discover the huge impact that “healthy behaviours” can have on life expectancy.

And they claim that by taking four simple steps we can all add up to 14 years to our lives. By giving up smoking, taking exercise, drinking in moderation and eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day it is possible to have a huge impact on longevity. It also dispels myths that social class and weight are the key to avoiding potentially fatal diseases.

Prof Nick Wareham, who works on the EPIC-Norfolk project, said: “The four factors taken in isolation are rela-tively well-known but this study brings home the impact that changing your behaviour can have.

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“These are steps which can have a large and tangible impact of people's lives. It is not just about length of life but also about quality of life - not only adding years to life but also adding life to years.

“If people find the prospect of changing all four aspects of their life they can choose to make one change which will in itself lead to significant results.

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“Clearly the sooner people make the changes the better but there is always time to make a difference, no matter how old you may be.”

Norfolk PCT and 28 GP practices across the county have supported the study which is based at Norwich Community Hospital. Dr John Battersby, director of public health, said: “The PCT would reiterate the messages of the EPIC study so far and there is clearly a lot we could all be doing to improve the quality of health in the county.

“We would encourage people to recognise that if everyone did a few vital things it would go a long way to improv-ing their own health as well as changing some of the worrying health trends.

“These are simple messages but very hard to do in practice. However, if we all followed them we would notice an improvement in our physical and mental health and Norfolk would become one of the healthiest places in the country to live.”

The PCT added that another key step which people should take is practising safer sex to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections.

PCT experts that people aiming to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables should remember that fresh, frozen, dried, tinned and juice can all count towards their daily intake. The Norfolk Stop Smoking Service is continuing to encourage people to give up as 22 people die from smoking related illnesses in the east each day.

The study which began in 1993 focused on those aged between 45 and 79 and originally studied the link between diet and cancer. But over the years it has evolved to study links with other health problems such as heart disease.

A total of 500,000 people have taken part in the Europe-wide study but Norfolk was chosen for the UK research as people were less likely to leave the area and because it includes a good cross-section of rural and urban communi-ties.

Smoking had the biggest single impact on people's health, with smokers 77pc more likely to have died during the study. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables came next, with high vitamin C levels giving people a 44pc better chance of being alive by the end of the study. A low alcohol intake improved people's chance of survival by 26pc and being physically active by 24pc.

Social class and a high body mass index should not necessarily be an obstacle to long life. Kay-Tee Khaw, from Cambridge University, said: “Being overweight is a health risk but we found that these activities reduce your risk of dying by the same amount, whether you are overweight or lean.”

Mr Wareham said: “These conclusions should serve as encouragement to people that they can make a difference to their own life. By taking a few simple steps you can make a dramatic difference.”

He added that the study is now entering its third phase in which participants will be given the latest in a series of health checks. The project will continue and upcoming publications including a study into eye health and people's ability to function in later life.

t Scientists from the EPIC project chose 30,000 volunteers from Norfolk for the study. Of these 25,000 gave blood samples which were kept on file and 20,000 had no previous history of cancer of heart disease.

People taking part in the study were awarded a point for each of the four healthy behaviours: not smoking, not being physically inactive (physical inactive was defined as having a sedentary job and not doing any recreational exercise), drinking less than 14 units of alcohol (seven pints of beer) a week and having a vitamin C level equiva-lent to eating five servings of fruit or vegetables a day.

After factoring in age, the results showed that over an average period of eleven years people with a score of zero - those who did not undertake any of these healthy forms of behaviour - were four times more likely to have died than those who had scored four in the questionnaire.

Furthermore, the researchers calculate that a person who has a health score of zero has the same risk of dying as someone 14 years older who had scored 4 in the questionnaire for engaging in all four healthy behaviours.

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