20 July 2020

What behaviours will shorten your life?

Researchers set out to find out why life expectancy in the United States has stagnated for three decades compared with other industrialised countries.

  • Life expectancy in the US has remained on the same level for 30 years
  • American researchers identified 10 social and behavioural factors most closely linked with dying
  • Their approach to the problem focused on looking at potential long-term impacts of these factors


Smoking, drinking too much and divorce are among the social and behavioural factors most strongly linked to dying early, a new study says.

Researchers analysed data from more than 13 600 US adults between 1992 and 2008, and examined 57 social and behavioural factors among those who died between 2008 and 2014.

The 10 factors most closely linked with dying were: being a current smoker; history of divorce; history of alcohol abuse; recent financial difficulties; history of unemployment; past smoking; lower life satisfaction; never being married; history of food stamps, and negative affectivity.

"It shows that a life span approach is needed to really understand health and mortality," said lead author Eli Puterman, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. He co-authored the study with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University.

Negative affectivity

Puterman noted, for example, that he and his colleagues looked at a 16-year history of unemployment, not just whether people were currently out of work.

"It's more than just a one-time snapshot in people's lives, where something might be missed because it did not occur," Puterman explained in a UBC news release. "Our approach provides a look at potential long-term impacts through a life span lens."

Life expectancy in the United States has stagnated for three decades compared with other industrialised countries, but the reasons aren't clear.

Biological factors and medical conditions are known to be major contributors to death risk, so the authors focused instead on social, psychological, economic, and behavioural factors.

"If we're going to put money and effort into interventions or policy changes, these areas could potentially provide the greatest return on that investment," Puterman said.

Identifying a factor such as negative affectivity – the idea that you tend to see and feel more negative things in life – suggests that new and targeted interventions may be needed, he said.

The findings were published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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