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Unhealthy lifestyle may raise the chance of disability

Unhealthy habits - such as eating a poor diet, not exercising, and smoking - may increase the chance of disability later in life, a study shows.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?


Our lifestyle plays a key role in how healthy we are. Many studies have shown that smoking, being inactive, and having other unhealthy habits can raise the risk of serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. However, fewer studies have looked at how our lifestyle affects our chance of disability later in life.

To learn more, researchers looked at nearly 4,000 people aged 65 and over who were living in Dijon, France, and were disability-free. The people were asked about their health and lifestyle, with the researchers noting whether they had the following unhealthy behaviours:

  • Limited walking (one hour a day or less) and exercising (once a week or less)
  • Eating fruit and vegetables less than once a day
  • Currently smoking, or having stopped smoking less than 15 years before
  • Drinking alcohol heavily, or not at all (some research suggests that light to moderate drinking has health benefits).

The researchers then followed the people for a total of 12 years, to find out whether they developed disability. This was defined as having difficulty, or needing help, in doing activities that are necessary for living independently. This could involve problems affecting mobility (such as having difficulty climbing stairs or doing heavy work around the house), and difficulty doing basic and essential daily tasks, such as using the phone, using public and private transport, managing medicines and money, bathing, and dressing.

What does the new study say?

Overall, 31 in every 100 people developed disability during the study. The researchers found that each of the unhealthy behaviours studied was linked to a higher chance of disability, with the exception of drinking alcohol heavily or not at all. In particular, the chance of disability was:

  • 72 percent higher for people who didn’t walk or exercise much
  • 24 percent higher for people who ate fruit and vegetables less than once a day
  • 26 percent higher for people who currently smoked or had stopped smoking less than 15 years before.

The more of these unhealthy behaviours people had, the more likely they were to develop disability. People with all three of these unhealthy behaviours were more than twice as likely to develop disability as those with none.

How reliable is the research?

This type of study can’t prove cause and effect, so it can’t tell us for certain that people had a higher chance of disability because of these unhealthy behaviours. This is because other factors might also have played a role.

However, the researchers did account for some of these factors, including people’s ages. They also took steps to avoid ‘reverse causation’ - this is the chance that some people had unhealthy behaviours because they were developing disability, rather than vice versa. An example of this would be if someone stopped exercising because they were starting to have problems moving about. To check whether reverse causation might have affected their findings, the researchers looked separately at people who developed disability four years or longer after the start of the study. They still found strong links between unhealthy behaviours and the chance of disability.

What does this mean for me?

At one time or another, we’ve all been advised to take regular exercise, not to smoke, and to eat a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. These findings provide even more reason to follow this advice, suggesting that taking these steps may help keep you healthy - and disability-free - later in life.

Published on July 26, 2013

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