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Live right and Americans could all live an extra 4 to 5 years

March 23, 2010 |  2:03 pm

Sure, each of us would feel better if we would just put down that sugary midafternoon snack, lose the smokes, hit the gym and take those high blood pressure drugs the doctor prescribed.

But let's look at the impact of these health-improving measures as if we were, say, in one of those popular competitive reality shows. If we divided ourselves up into teams along ethnic and geographic lines--say, high-risk urban blacks, white middle Americans, Asians, Western Native Americans, low-income northern rural whites and low-income Southern rural blacks--who would win the great life-extension contest?

According to researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, the low-income Southern black team has the most to gain by quitting smoking and bringing their weight, blood pressure and blood glucose levels into line with current recommendations. Men would gain an average of 6.7 years of life and women, 5.7 on average, with the greatest gains coming from controlling blood pressure and (for men, anyway) smoking cessation. African Americans from cities with high murder rates come in next with the most to gain by quitting smoking and lowering their blood pressure.

The article,which details the impact that smoking, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and excess weight have on different populations of Americans, appears in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine, released Monday. It finds that Asian American lifespans are the least affected by the big four health scourges. Average life expectancy in that community is currently 82 years for men and 87 for women, but with optimal health behavior, could reach 87 and 91, respectively.

(The PLoS study comes on the immediate heels of a set of studies in the American Journal of Public Health that finds within the ethnically diverse bloc of Asian Americans -- long considered the "model minority" in terms of health factors -- there are subgroups -- for instance, Laotian Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian -- that suffer unusually elevated risks of certain cancers, due generally to higher rates of smoking or lower rates of screening).

Have a look at the PLoS study's team tally here.

How did Middle America --- defined as all whites not living in the northern plains or the Dakotas, or in Appalachia or the Mississippi Valley -- do? Average life expectancies on that team now stand at 76 for men and about 81 for women. But if everyone on the team pitched in, Middle American men could be living, on average, to 81 and women to 85.

If only real life could be more like a reality show!

-- Melissa Healy  

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