coffee, booze, and extra weight won’t help you live longer. so what will?

According to media reports, a recent study found the recipe for a longer life: to be a little overweight and enjoy your beer and lattes. But there’s a secret ingredient they’re missing...

senior woman with martini

Usually, when a study tells you that eating something in particular or abstaining from something other than smoking will help you live longer or prevent a certain dreaded disease, take that with several pinches of salt. There are just far too many unknowns when it comes to nutrition and lifestyle choices are usually complex and change as we age, so it’s very hard to say anything for certain, even from studies involving tens of thousands of individuals. But generally, researchers agree that more exercise, less body fat, and fewer alcoholic drinks and cups of coffee should add up to a longer lifespan for the vast majority of us.

Or at least, one could say they did until the recent UC Irvine study measuring the life outcomes of 14,000 residents of Orange County in Southern California. According to the data, those who drank alcohol and coffee, and were slightly overweight in their 70s lived longer than their skinnier, teetotaling, non-caffeinated counterparts. This seems a bit surprising on its face. We did have studies indicating that moderate alcohol and coffee consumption are good for you coming in for years, but none indicated greater life expectancy, just slightly better cardiovascular function and mental sharpness.

On the other hand, being slightly overweight, or worse yet, obese, tends to be associated with a higher chance of developing cancer, so seeing a positive correlation between that and a longer lifespan is puzzling. Are the caffeine and alcohol negating the effects of being overweight? Are the three factors working in concert to do something positive? What’s going on here? Should you start packing on the pounds and getting a drink with dinner more often? Well, before you start thinking about doing just that, consider two important things. The first is that correlation does not equal causation. The second is where the study’s subjects lived.

why lifestyle data is so hard to analyze

It’s extremely important to note that all the study noted were these three interesting correlations among many other factors. As we’ve recently found out, sometimes being overweight isn’t going to shorten your life expectancy all by itself, and we also know that classifying patients by BMI is often fraught with scientific inaccuracies. Senior citizens who have a few extra pounds but try to stay active, don’t smoke, and enjoy food and drink in moderation might not actually be obese or overweight after a more thorough medical examination. They might just be diagnostic outliers found by the study’s number-crunching phase. And speaking of outliers, they’re also very likely to be a different kind of atypical when it comes to the general population.

Orange County is not an average place income and wealth-wise. Median home prices stand at $675,000 while median household income is just over $81,300 and average household is worth nearly $850,000 which are all well above national numbers. The median American home goes for around $200,000 and is owned by a household making a median of just under $61,400 and with a wealth of roughly $97,000 by comparison. Senior citizens who were the study’s subjects are significantly wealthier and have access to slightly better healthcare than typical Americans, and we know that life expectancy is notably higher for the wealthy.

so, what are the keys to a longer life?

While this is not going to be anywhere as exciting as claiming that coffee and wine are the path to a longer lifespan, what the study really seems to have found is that the best way to add extra years to your life is to have the geographic and financial access to good healthcare. As for everything else? There’s not enough information to make any firm claims because subjects might not have drank alcohol and coffee as a personal choice, or they may have been avoiding them due to medical conditions and doctors’ advice, indicating that those who imbued may have been in better health and therefore would’ve lived longer anyway.

In short, this is one of those studies with a catchy result that caught the pop sci media editors’ attention because they could work in some of their readers’ favorite vices into a headline that promised the secret to a longer life, but in reality, has very little in terms of concrete information on these exact factors. And for good reason. The main goal of the study is to better understand relationships between aging and cognitive diseases, not how many glasses of wine or cups of coffee per week will add to your lifespan. Meanwhile, the lifestyle data they do provide only tells us that wealth and moderation are key to better and longer living, something we’ve already known and studied for many years.

# health // life expectancy / lifespan / medical research


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