Lifestyle and illness

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My grandfather recently turned 85 years old. That’s amazing to me! So I had to ask him that stereotypical question that people always ask older folks–what he credited his long lifespan to. I got a pretty straightforward answer: luck!

My grandfather has taken really good care of himself, at least as far as I know, but he told me that he figured only luck has kept him around so long. He said he knows fat people who are still alive and skinny people who are dead, and that ultimately it’s all mostly luck.

I know that’s not exactly true, but it got me curious: how much does it actually improve your odds of a long life to be in shape? Not that many fat people end up having heart attacks, after all.

It’s true enough that there are a lot of overweight people running around who have not dropped dead of heart attacks. And it’s equally true that there are a lot of people who have taken great care of themselves, only to find that illness or an accident has come for them all the same. But, as you quite astutely point out, this is not the whole story.

The whole story is told with the big picture. While an individual can’t control his or her future entirely, it’s very possible to increase your odds of a long life, and we can see this clearly when we look at larger population groups.

Your question focused on weight and nutritional health, so let’s look at that. We know that fit people can die young and that out-of-shape folks can live to old age, but we also know that fit people should be living long on average. But how much longer?

Experts say that, on average, overweight people lose a year of their lives and obese people lose three. That gives us a clear view of the trend here, which is that being out of shape has consequences.

Part of the story here is that being out of shape doesn’t just cause the “heart attacks” your grandfather referenced. Being overweight puts you at a higher risk for everything from diabetes to sleep apnea.

It’s important to note here that risk factors aren’t everything. Anyone can get sick, say the physicians at Regional Cancer Care Associates, and nobody benefits from blaming cancer victims. But we all benefit from the lessons these studies teach us, and we can lower our risks of terrible diseases and other health issues by taking good care of ourselves.

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources you can rely on for nutritional information for all age groups–such as this site, from healthcare lawyer and philanthropist Howard Fensterman. And information on exercise and other keys to health is readily available, too. Your grandfather’s observation, whether grim or full of dark humor, can serve as a reminder that life is unpredictable and should be enjoyed, but don’t let it stop you from taking the best care of yourself that you can. Luck and other factors may carry you as far as your grandfather got regardless, but if you want to make that as likely as possible, you’ll want to do as he does, not as he’s said: take care of yourself.

“Give a man health and a course to steer, and he’ll never stop to trouble about whether he’s happy or not.” — G.B. Shaw

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