By: Colin Bullen
This is part of The BRATLAB ‘Behavioral Prescription’ Series
At times like these, even more so than usual, it is good to reflect on one’s own mortality. In the past, we may have discussed it over a few beers – running the gamut from the trite “don’t let me get old” to the more prosaic “how can I prolong my life, while maintaining my quality of life”. Most contemporary searches about extending life draw up lifestyle-related articles – articles about exercise, healthy eating, and stress management – but is there any real science behind these articles?
While the nod to science fiction alluded to in the title of this article may well become science fact, it’s unlikely to be in our lifetimes. We’re not talking about reversing the aging process here. The science devoted to reversing aging is in its infancy, albeit already large and growing exponentially – those interested I would suggest checking out work by David Sinclair, Aubrey de Grey, the book ‘Juvenescence’ by Jim Mellon and Al Chalabi, or many other great thinkers in this space.
If you ask most people, they will typically indicate a desire to live longer. That is usually tempered with view that they’d like to be healthy while doing so, but if we could create the pill that helps us live 10 more years without any side-effects, most would be happy to take it. But is it worth making the effort to change your behavior to achieve the same outcome? What impact might healthy behavior change have on your lifespan?
The long and short of it
Mortality is something we actuaries love to talk about, perhaps a little too obsessively to be acceptable at the average dinner party. Mortality is like an on-off switch, two distinct points, no more. It’s one of the easier data points to judge – you’re either dead, or you’re alive and there’s not much middle ground – to a scientist at least. And it’s fair to say that if you’re dead your health is not of much interest any longer.
Two sides of the same coin, mortality is the probability of dying while longevity is an expression of our expectation of life. Mortality is the probability that the switch turns ‘off’ for us sometime over the course of the next year. On the other side, increasing your longevity means increasing your lifespan. Much health research is based on the analysis of mortality.
The two are inversely related – if you reduce your mortality, you increase your longevity, and vice versa. However, a 30% reduction in mortality does not lead to a 30% increase in longevity. Without going too deeply into the math, it’s basically harder (mathematically) to increase longevity than it is to reduce mortality. For an average person of working age, a simple assumption would be to say that longevity increases would be around half the corresponding mortality reduction. As a rule of thumb – and ignoring all the ifs buts and maybes – if you hear someone talking about a 30% reduction in mortality, you can assume that it corresponds roughly to a 15% increase in longevity.
But that’s quite enough math for one day. What about behavior?
Behaviors to reduce mortality and increase longevity (but not by as much)
When we started building up the BRATLAB database of research into behavior change, we were not surprised to find that certain behaviors – like exercise, healthy eating, and stress management – have a beneficial impact on lifetimes as illustrated in the graph below.
Followers of the BRATLAB ‘behavioral prescription’ series know that we like to be specific about the behavior that should be practiced and become a new habit to have the optimal desired impact.
So, if all you wanted to do was to extend your life, then the research suggests that you should get on your bike and start exercising if you’re not already. According to the research that we synthesized, 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise daily (five days out of seven) leads to an improvement in fitness that results in a 60% reduction in mortality. Although some papers suggested the impact was not quite so significant, they had different behaviors assumed and we felt confident that 60% was likely to be a realistic statement of the optimal outcome from moving from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one as described.
Other research – not shown here – tells us to give up smoking. The only behavior change that can match exercise for expected mortality reduction and longevity improvement is smoking cessation. I expect you already knew that. Although perhaps the reverse was less obvious – that picking up exercise (if you are not already exercising at the recommended levels) is just as effective as smoking cessation at increasing longevity.
Finally, I’m also aware that there are many fans of sleeping out there. For those that are interested, getting 7 hours of good quality every night is associated with a 35% reduction in mortality.
In a Nutshell
If you’d like to live longer, then it’s time to address your exercise habits – or give up smoking in the unlikely event that you’re still doing that. If you’re already a wellbeing expert, how about telling your less active clients that exercise is just as effective as smoking cessation for increasing your expected future lifetime by 30%? Might that help with motivation?
Want to know how to go about improving your colleagues’ exercise behaviors? Why not try our courses on behavior change? These courses qualify for NWI CPE credits.
If you have questions on this or any related subject, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be pleased to assist.
 If not familiar to you, speak to a Star Trek fan about this Vulcan farewell.
Colin Bullen is the founder and director of Change Craft, a global business established to help organizations execute effective and successful well-being change. In business, he’s the technician, evaluator, and strategist. A true road-less-traveled devotee, he qualified as an actuary in 1992 in the UK before spending 13 years in South Africa where he met Chicago-based business partner Hanlie van Wyk. During this time, he has steadily broadened his métier into health, well-being, leadership, strategy, assessment, and data.
Colin has a deep passion for helping companies find their human touch, whilst accelerating their performance and focusing their vision. Colin is also one of the creators of the behavioral research database that is BRATLAB and has been a driving force behind early successes in Change Craft.