Approximately a month ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an updated analysis of the causes of death for Americans – and the news was bleak. Life expectancy had decreased for the first time since 1993, down to 78.8 years. And this is on the heels of several years of stagnation. This didn’t surprise me, or probably anyone else for that matter, as Americans haven’t made any earth-shattering changes in their lifestyles. After decades of deplorable diets and indolence, we were bound to start living shorter, and not longer, lives.
Although the total decrease in life was small – about five weeks, life expectancy is still considered to be a barometer of our nation’s overall health. Some have brushed the decline as a trivial finding, but I think this is just one manifestation of how off course our collective health is. If Americans lived “healthier,” we could live up to a decade longer or more, like the Seventh Day Adventists, who are considered to be some of the healthiest people in America for their non-smoking, teetotaling, vegetarian lifestyle. In contrast, our life expectancies had been coming short of our full potential for years, and now it is falling even shorter.
So what are you supposed to do about it? Of course, if you are a smoker, you could stop smoking. Smokers live on average a decade less than their counterparts, but the evils of smoking have been well publicized - and most Americans don’t smoke. So, for us non-smokers, what’s the next step?
Well the next step may surprise you. And it starts in your grocer’s produce aisle. The Global Burden of Disease Study – one of the largest studies ever conducted on the causes of human death, conducted by more than 500 researchers from more than 50 countries, answered this question. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 2012 study analyzed 67 variables of human habit from more than 100,000 data sources to determine that our diet was the single most important factor for longevity. And of all the dietary variables analyzed, a diet devoid of fruits had the single largest impact on human mortality. Millions of lives could be saved by just eating more fruits.
As eye opening as it may seem, fruits are healthy. Higher fruit consumption has repeatedly been associated with a decrease in mortality. Fruits are so powerful because they have been associated with reducing our leading causes of death, like heart disease and cancer. In one study, a single serving of fruit has been linked with a reduction in the risk of heart disease by 7% - that’s just with one extra piece of fruit per day. Fruits have also been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer, all of which are leading causes of cancer death.
They are full of healthful substances, like anti-oxidants, fiber, and polyphenols, all of which work synergistically to prevent damage to the body. And when replacing junk food, fruits have more benefits by omitting unnecessary cholesterol, fat, and calories that would have otherwise been eaten. Despite all of their health benefits, Americans eat only about a single piece of fruit on any given day. The room for improvement couldn’t be bigger.
With a new year upon us, what better way to live healthier – and longer – than by eating an extra piece of fruit every day. Or five.