When It Comes to Longevity, It’s Not Years But Microlives that May Count

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We know that overindulging in our favorite foods isn’t good for our health, but researchers propose a new way of quantifying just how harmful those treats can be.

Now that we’re in the midst of the holiday season, calorie-laden foods seem to be ubiquitous — sugary cookies, sweet candies and juicy hams dripping with honey. But in the holiday issue of the BMJ, researchers report that making a habit of overindulging in rich fare can take years off your life. In fact, the scientists calculated exactly how much our favorite foods can shorten our life span; eating red meat every day, for example, is linked to a loss of at least 30 minutes off of your life.

(MORE: How to Live 100 Years)

Dr. David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge and author of the study, says that it’s not the occasional indulgence but consistent over-eating of certain foods that can impact your longevity. But for most people, weighing the immediate gratification of eating a steak sizzling on a plate in front of you against a far-off loss of a year or two of your life in your 70s or 80s, almost always ends with people favoring the steak. So he decided to frame daily diet choices in the more immediate terms of adding or losing hours to your day. Calculating that the average life spans about 80 years, he divided that time up for adults 35 and older into nearly a million half hours, and assigned each 30 minute period to be 1 microlife. Each microlife is about one millionth of life expectancy after age 35. He then assessed how unhealthy eating habits would impact a person’s total microlives.

Smoking, for example, eats up approximately 10 microlives for every 20 cigarettes smoked — or about 15 fewer minutes of life expectancy per cigarette. “Smoking 20 cigarettes a day (10 microlives) is as if you are rushing towards your death at 29 hours a day instead of 24,” he says.

Averaged over a lifetime, the following habits are linked to the loss of one microlife: smoking two cigarettes, eating a burger, being roughly 11 pounds overweight, chugging a second or third alcoholic beverage, and watching two hours of television.

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On the positive side, behaviors that can add half hours of life expectancy include: drinking 2-3 cups of coffee or taking statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs (one microlife), eating fruits and vegetables (four microlives), and working out 20 minutes per day (two microlives).

On a demographic level, gender can also afford some advantage; just being a woman is associated with gaining 4 microlives a day, while male gender is roughly equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes every day (not clear why, but possibly due to the fact that women may tend to eat healthier overall than men). Living in Sweden as opposed to being a resident of Russia is associated with a gain of 21 microlives daily for men (a trend that may be attributed to the higher rate of alcohol consumption and lower rates of physical activity in Russia). And while it may be obvious that people are living longer now than they were a century ago, framing that argument in microlives reveals a gain of 21 microlives for men living in 2010 compared to 1910 (15 a day).

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So far, says Spiegelhalter, the tallies for additional microlives and those for lost microlives are not interchangeable; a microlife lost to drinking an extra beer, for example, isn’t gained back by exercising for 20 minutes. The idea is to engage in as many additive behaviors as possible to ensure they outpace the microlives you lose.

Of course, microlives can only be a gross measure of how lifestyle can impact longevity, and Spiegelhalter acknowledges that people’s bodies respond differently to harmful or beneficial behaviors.

But overall, the Cambridge statistician argues that simpler ways to remind people that every choice they make in their daily lives can affect their longevity may help them to adopt healthier habits more readily. “One does not need a study to conclude that people do not generally like the idea of getting older faster,” Spiegelhalter wrote.

MORE: Hong Kong Women Have Longest Life Expectancy

27 comments
ThisIsJMadd
ThisIsJMadd

@fre3zyFbaby @TIME Thanks for sharing! If interested in seeing more food-nutrition-health information please read @DrFuhrman.

rcsehgal
rcsehgal

@TIMEHealthland Adequate stands for enough also sets a limit.

Bryan_or_Mitch
Bryan_or_Mitch

@SabsieReyes there is no link to the actual study. He just made up those numbers

alienstarship
alienstarship

What a bunch of crap..Just do everything in morderation ,  some i guess have nothing better to do then come up with junk like this.

ImmyKaur
ImmyKaur

@ImmyKaur @inderjitkaur77 @time don't die, it's the last thing we need.

sikandarkns
sikandarkns

@TIME your person of the year should be the ppl who r polio workers and attached in Pakistan bt no one is taking it serious

PhilGoyette
PhilGoyette

"Each microlife is about one millionth of life expectancy after age 35."  Actually, according to the article, each 'microlife' is a half hour.  So this guy has renamed the half hour.  I wonder how many 'microlives' that took him.  He should get a real life instead...

Fahren Marpaung
Fahren Marpaung

Eat healthy food every day. Don't eat overeating anyway.

Chad Revis
Chad Revis

Read your ingredients and you'll know why it's killing you!

Matthew McMillan
Matthew McMillan

The anxiety caused by reading Time magazine has killed more people than The Twinkie. True story.

ericmiller1984
ericmiller1984

@TheWACDerek sure hope im gaining some after reading this

DebbieK541955
DebbieK541955

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Oh my goodness, before you know it all the junk food in the stores will be removed and illegal to buy here in USA!

Social_Freedom_
Social_Freedom_

@time Never good to overeat! Especially overindulging on junk food!

MatreshkaCats
MatreshkaCats

@pinkymomo mama... dun post depressing article hahah

dobermanmacleod
dobermanmacleod

What isn't widely known, and is unintuitive, (medical) technology is increasing at an exponential rate.  People have a very hard time imagining the difference between linear and exponential, because examples of exponential are rare and exotic (like virus multiplying, or the growth in popularity of a video as word spreads).  It is predicted, given exponential growth in medical technology, that RADICAL LIFE EXTENSION TECHNOLOGY will mean that in twenty years we could have the ability to live CENTURIES.

What the above means, if you are like me and on the cusp, indulgences not only rob you of a couple years of life, but could potentially rob you of centuries.  Longevity first, and everything else second.  Spread the word, and read the book "Smart, Strong, and Sexy at 100?"

DrDave
DrDave

Is it just me, or does this really just make it more confusing?  Especially the part about "microlives" not being interchangeable. Not doing something "bad", and not shortening a life by 30 minutes, somehow isn't as good as doing something "good", and adding 30 minutes? Why give them equivalent weights, then? 

VBarryLyndon
VBarryLyndon

@DebbieK541955 OH the HORROR!! if those things were banned, what WOULD the country do??? would they die of starvation?  would they wake up from their over indulgent lives filled with obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, hip replacements and actually give a crap?

pinkymomo
pinkymomo

@MatreshkaCats loool depressing uuuu?