Curious Cook: A better life

Adopting a healthy diet between the ages of 20 to 60 can increase life span by at least a decade. —ELLA OLSSON/Pexels

The latest available statistics (published in 2022 for the year ending 2021) on human life expectancy from the United Nations WPP (World Population Prospects) is sober reading. The data from over 240 countries and dependent territories indicated the peak of human longevity was achieved in 2019. It also highlighted the magnitude of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in life expectancy terms.

From the peak of 2019, citizens in most countries had lost significant periods of their statistical life expectancies. By 2021, India had lost 3.7 years of their expected lifespan in 2019, Europe had lost 2.1 years, the USA had lost 1.9 years, both Germany and the UK lost a year while Malaysia lost 0.9 years although France lost only 0.2 years.

Several poorer countries lost significant life spans too, such as Russia which was affected by -4.5 years, Botswana -4.4 years, Bolivia -4.2 years, Lebanon -4.2 years, South Africa -3.9 years, Peru -3.8 years, Namibia -3.8 years, etc.

Oman had a staggering shortening of life expectancy of -5.5 years, a number which I had to double-check in the database. Overall, the world lost an average of -1.8 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2021, with the less developed countries suffering an average loss of -2.2 years. Even upper and middle-income countries lost -1.2 years of life expectancy.

The data indicates that Covid-19 is a serious, deadly disease with very tangible impacts on humans as the coronavirus is the only plausible cause of such sudden and huge negative variances in human life expectancies. Hence people should do all they can to protect themselves from the SARS-CoV-2 virus (and its variants), including taking advice regarding vaccinations and booster vaccinations.


To be frank, the above expected life expectancy statistics are probably boring to many people, and understandably so because one cannot “feel” a lifespan statistic. In any case, people should not be as concerned about their expected lifespan compared to their healthy life expectancy (HALE), or the period in life during which people are enjoying good health.

The difference between a person’s total lifespan and HALE is the sum of all those periods when the person is in poor health and in need of drugs and medical treatment. This is referred to as the Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY), and one DALY represents the loss of a whole year of good health for a human. This statistic is very relevant and interesting to pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals, as explained later.

While being in poor health is usually infinitely preferable to not being alive, there is often not much joy in enduring drug treatments, undergoing medical procedures, and worrying about the costs during sicknesses. Such costs are not necessarily considered in monetary terms but in future impacts on health and potential lifestyle limitations.

The HALE and DALY statistics are actually interesting, for several reasons. Between 2000 and 2019, life expectancy globally has increased by almost 10%, from 66.8 years to 73.4 years (6.6 years). However, HALE has improved by only 5.4 years during the same period, indicating a longer average DALY period of 1.2 years around the world. This has huge implications for economic and social costs.

Research has shown that for elderly people over the age of 80, switching to a healthy diet does not really result in pronounced changes to life span. — QUY NGUYEN/PexelsResearch has shown that for elderly people over the age of 80, switching to a healthy diet does not really result in pronounced changes to life span. — QUY NGUYEN/Pexels

However, those statistics do not tell the whole story. Many millions enjoy a higher degree of health due to medications, and these relatively uneventful years are counted as part of the HALE data. The period between the transition of HALE to DALY is also usually blurry. People eating ultra-processed foods (UPF) may think they are having a good time, even as they slowly acquire metabolic syndrome and other diet-related diseases. The symptoms of these diet-related diseases may be mild for an extended period which may look “healthy” (or at least not problematic on the outside), but this is unlikely to be the case if internal organs are investigated in detail. The human body is remarkably resilient until some persistent damage crosses the threshold into becoming an observable disease.

Improving HALE

Often the physical signs of ageing are subtle but apparent, and include changes in posture, less mobility, less muscular strength, etc. A simple test might be the “back scratch test” where one attempts to join the fingers of the hands placed behind the back with one arm held over its shoulder and the other hand up from the waist.

If one cannot touch the fingers together, then get someone to measure the distance between the fingertips and monitor this distance over time. Do the same but with the other shoulder and arms. One side should normally be less comfortable and/or wider in distance than the other. This is the side that normally needs more exercise unless it is due to an injury in the past.

Although I mentioned exercise, this is not an activity to rush into, especially if one is not used to it. However, exercise needs only to be moderate, such as walking intently, perhaps with a dog, or doing some energetic shopping. The idea is to make some exertions on the body, so it is always best to commence a walk with some purpose in mind rather than amble along aimlessly.

The amount of exercise needed to be beneficial is not onerous, a minimum of 150 minutes a week (less than 22 minutes a day of mild exertion), or perhaps 75 minutes a week of more serious efforts (less than 11 minutes a day). At the end of a bout of daily exercise, one should ideally feel a little sweaty and out of breath as the heart rate and blood circulation go up.

HALE appears to be improved by not allowing the body to deteriorate due to a lack of physical fitness. A body in poor physical shape (overweight, inferior muscle tone, etc) is statistically more likely to be susceptible to diseases, respiratory issues, and cardiovascular illnesses.

Improving lifespan

A review paper using data from the World Bank’s large Global Burden of Disease study covering around two million people in China, Europe, and the USA found that a healthy diet was linked to roughly 13 years of extended life expectancy.

Although this cannot be a surprise to anyone, what was rather unexpected was data that indicated starting a healthy diet even at the age of 60 can add roughly an extra nine years to life expectancy. If a healthy diet was adopted from age 40 onwards, then the increase in lifespan was around 12 years, with the maximum benefit of just over 13 years if healthy diets were started at age 20. At all age groups, men derived more lifespan extension from healthy diets than women, though the reasons are not known. However, under the same circumstances, women still generally live longer than men.

A minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week is ideal for human health. — DANIEL RECHE/PexelsA minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week is ideal for human health. — DANIEL RECHE/Pexels

The other finding is that lifespan improvement is much less pronounced if healthy diets are adopted from the age of 80 onwards. This does not mean that good diets do not help octogenarians. The statistic was very likely distorted by the fact most very old people are near the end of their lives anyway. Even so, switching to healthy diets at the age of 80 could still extend life expectancy by around three years.

Overall, a simplified interpretation of the study is that the significant benefits of a healthy diet in terms of lifespan improvement appear to decline more rapidly from age 60 onwards. However, any change to healthier eating regardless of age is always correlated with some lifespan improvement.

It is a pity that the study was not able to establish the DALY relative to the ages when people adopted healthier diets. It is highly plausible that DALYs for people would increase the older the age of switching to healthy eating, but at present no data confirms this.

Reducing DALY

Irrespective of the impact of healthy eating on lifespans, what is indisputable is that unhealthy eating is linked to diseases, especially those arising from metabolic syndrome. As stated in an earlier article on The Star Online titled ‘TOFI, FOFI and metabolic syndrome’, many diet-related diseases are not immediately fatal, and such diseases may persist for decades before finally becoming debilitating.

Hence, exposure to unhealthy foods such as UPFs is highly likely to increase DALY, along with eating foods contaminated with pathogens, pesticides, heavy metals, hormones, etc.

An extended DALY may not be avoidable for people born with genetic issues, or who may have suffered severe diseases. However, for the general population, the DALY of most people can be influenced by pursuing healthier dietary habits.

DALY = profits

If one is healthy, then one does not need medications or medical interventions. So the huge sizes of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries indicate that many people are not able to function properly without drugs and/or medical support. Currently, around 75% of all the medical resources in some developed countries are dedicated to treating conditions related to metabolic syndrome, which is a range of conditions and diseases (including obesity) directly caused by poor dietary habits and poor foods.

Another curious fact is that Novo Nordisk, the makers of the weight-loss drugs Wegovy and Ozempic, is now the most valuable listed business in Europe. This would not have happened without the global pandemic of metabolic syndrome right now.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Curious Cook , Chris Chan , lifespan


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