Mental health benefits from a healthy lifestyle

We are told time and time again that if we live well, eat well and look after ourselves, we can enjoy lengthening lives with increasingly robust health.

Without these good habits we all know we run a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiac disease, stroke, cancer and a host of other chronic conditions.

What we are possibly less aware of is a direct link between adopting a healthy lifestyle and our mental health – namely reducing the risk of dementia.

Healthy lifestyles based on non-smoking, a having a healthy weight, eating more fruit and vegetables, doing more physical activity, and drinking alcohol sensibly, have for some time been associated with improving health and reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases. However, until recently there was limited evidence on cognitive function and dementia.

Data gathered from a 30-year study of a large representative number of men living in and around Caerphilly has delivered eye-opening results.

Known as the Caerphilly Cohort Study, it was set up in 1979 by Professor Peter Elwood of the Cochrane Institute at Cardiff University. He was joined a few years later by Dr John Gallacher, who conducted special tests of cognitive function on the subjects. Almost 30 years later, John together with Professor Tony Bayer, carried out detailed tests of dementia that have drawn such surprising conclusions.

Those healthy behaviours (non-smoking, healthy weight, regular exercise, a fruit and vegetables based diet and alcohol consumption within recommended guidelines) were defined by the study.

Combinations of these behaviours are referred to as ‘healthy lifestyles’ and their benefits were examined in the long-term study of a 2,235 men in Caerphilly, aged 45-59 years in 1979. During the following 30 years, the incidents of diabetes, vascular disease, cancer and death were recorded. In addition the cognitive state of the men involved in the study, and who were still alive, was determined.

The men involved in the study were questioned on how many of the five behaviours they followed, and in what combinations.

Using this information, the relationships were examined between the numbers of behaviours being followed by subjects, namely none; any one; any two; any three; any four and all five healthy behaviours, and the incidence of various diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

The results were very striking. Few men in the cohort followed all five behaviours, but the men who consistently followed a lifestyle which included four or five healthy behaviours experienced reductions, on average, of about 70% in new cases of Type 2 diabetes, similar reductions in heart disease and stroke. Non-smoking was associated with a reduction in cancer of 40%.

Most remarkable of all, the results show about 64% reduction in the occurrence of dementia in the men who followed four or five of the healthy behaviours.

This tangible, evidence-based link clearly confirms the benefits of adopting healthy behaviours in reducing the risk of developing chronic conditions. However, it is the first time such a link has been drawn in this way between the lifestyles we lead in our younger years and the protection this can offer to our mental health in our old age.

In an age of austerity, we are having to re-think and re-cast the relationship between the citizen and the services provided by the state. Of course, the NHS will always be there to keep care for people who fall ill. But, when individuals knowingly and deliberately put themselves in harms way, by smoking and drinking too much, for example, then if things go wrong, the first question in the future cannot be ‘what is the NHS going to do about it?’.

The Caerphilly Cohort Study which has painstakingly charted the behaviours of more than 2,000 men over a 30-year period throws into sharp relief due to which prevention of illness and preservation of health lies in our own hands. It gives us the clearest insight yet into the effect these decisions will have on our future health. We are living longer, but we are not necessarily enjoying a good quality of life in those extra years.

However it also stated that the prevention and the preservation of health is our own responsibility. We can choose to say “It is my decision whether or not I smoke, what body weight I maintain, whether or not I exercise regularly, what diet I take and how much I drink. It is also my decision whether or not I attend for screening and whether or not I take a preventive medicine.”

There are important responsibilities which fall to Government, too, in creating the circumstances which support individuals in leading healthier lives. In many respects, we already do with our smoking ban in public places, and the Fresh Start campaign, both of which seek to reduce non-smokers’ harmful exposure to second hand smoke.

However, we aim to go further. Early in 2014 we will publish a new Public Health White Paper, setting out extra ways in which we can act together to prevent harm and promote better health for the future. I hope you’ll watch out for it and let us know of any ideas you may have to help make Wales a healthier nation.

This news was taken from Wales Online. If you wish to know more visit