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Ontarians would live 7.5 years longer if they avoided smoking, excess alcohol consumption, poor diet, sedentary behaviour and stress, according to a new report.

Daniel Laflor/iStockphoto

Seven and a half more years.

That's how much longer adult Ontarians would live, on average, if they could collectively overcome five unhealthy habits: smoking, excess alcohol consumption, poor diet, sedentary behaviour and stressing out.

That is the conclusion of a new report from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Public Health Ontario.

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It's a staggering number. Yet, the average actually fails to convey the full impact of lifestyle choices by individuals.

You don't have to look too hard to find someone who smokes, drinks too much, eats badly, is inactive and invariably stressed – sometimes you just have to look in the mirror. Those individuals have a life expectancy of 68.5 years for men and 71.5 years for women.

Compare that to people with really healthy lifestyles, the non-smoking, moderate drinkers who aren't afraid to put a few veggies on their plate and make physical activity part of their daily routine, sweating away the stress. Albeit harder to find, their life expectancy is a stunning 88.6 years for men and 92.5 years for women. The roughly 20-year difference reflects the best-case scenario (no bad habits) versus the worst (all five bad habits).

The cynics will say: "Hey, their lives just seem longer." But, no, if you look closely at the number they reveal that those who make good choices not only live longer, they live better. In concrete terms, they live a decade longer without the chronic conditions and disabilities that are common among older seniors.

As the report notes, between them, the five unhealthy habits account for more than 60 per cent of premature mortality. Too much smoking, drinking and sitting is also a major contributor to more than 50 diseases, including the end-of-life Final Four – heart disease, cancer, diabetes and COPD.

Of course, lifestyle choices are just part of the equation. There is ample evidence that the social determinants of health – income, education, employment, stable housing, physical environment – have a tremendous impact on health and life expectancy.

The new ICES/PHO report notes that people living in Ontario's poorest neighbourhoods have a life expectancy that is 4.5 years less than those in wealthier neighbourhoods, a significant "equity gap."

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But these are not either/or propositions. One's socioeconomic situation has a tremendous impact on lifestyle choices. Those with low-incomes and less education are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol to excess, and eat poorly, for reasons than can be complex. On physical activity and stress, the data are more mitigated – the poor are often active by virtue of the fact that they work in manual labour, and they don't necessarily report higher levels of stress because stress is a social construct.

The problem with this type of analysis is that the desired outcome – no citizens with unhealthy habits – looks unattainable. And maybe it is: After all, only 1.4 per cent of Ontarians have none of the unhealthy behaviours.

But one of the distinguishing features of the new report is that it comes with a nifty online tool, one that allows individuals to calculate the impact of their lifestyle choices and they don't have to be all or none.

A 40-year-old non-smoker who drinks moderately and eats consciously but can't find time to exercise, for example, can, with a few clicks, see that finding time to be active an hour a day, could add five years to his or her life expectancy – a pretty good payoff.

That's practical information, the kind we don't have near enough of in our daily lives. For far too long, we've tried scaring people into good health, with dire warnings they're going to suffer and die for their choices.

The new ICES/PHO data, on the other hand, are more positive. They show that small changes can have a big payoff in life expectancy and quality of life. That should be motivating individually and inspiring collectively.

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