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The #1 Worst Habits Shortening Your Life

Lay off these habits and live longer.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

We all want to live happy, healthy lives, but sometimes it's all too easy to fall into patterns that cause harm to our wellbeing. "We are comfort-craving critters and that leads us to some compulsive bad habits," says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. "We're creatures of habit, and bad habits still have some power over us. If you fall back into bad habits, remember that sometimes it takes many trials to get to where you want to go." Here are five habits taking years off your life, according to doctors. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Sitting All Day Can Shorten Your Life

young woman sitting at desk with back pain
Shutterstock / Andrey_Popov

There is a wealth of evidence linking prolonged sitting to a shorter life, even if you work out regularly. "The assumption has been that if you're fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day," says Rebecca Seguin, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. "In fact, in doing so you are far less protected from negative health effects of being sedentary than you realize… If you're in an office, get up and move around frequently. If you're retired and have more idle time, find ways to move around inside and outside the house. Get up between TV programs, take breaks in computer and reading time, and be conscious of interrupting prolonged sedentary time."


Not Getting Enough Sleep

young woman holding face in bed in the dark dealing with insomnia or poor sleep

If only the worst thing about a bad night's sleep was feeling a little cranky the next day! Studies show that not getting enough quality sleep is linked to a number of serious health conditions including diabetes and heart disease. "No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation," says sleep scientist Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. "It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS [U.K. National Health Service] poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritized, even incentivised. Sleep loss costs the U.K. economy over £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep."

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woman smoking cigarette near people

Study after study shows that smoking cigarettes can take over ten years off your lifespan. "Smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S.," says Timothy McAfee, MD, MPH. "We need to do more to educate the American people about these findings. Women now lose about 11 years of life expectancy if they smoke. Men lose about 12 years."

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Stressing Out

stressed out woman

Chronic stress can shorten your lifespan on a cellular level, doctors warn. "Stress is now on the map as one of the most consistent predictors of shorter telomere [protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA] length," says Elissa Epel, Ph.D. "The type of stress determines how big its effect is. So we can see this relationship between stress and cell aging across a lifespan, and it's fundamental to how we're built. Our brains are constantly looking for threats to our survival. When we expose our bodies to years of chronic stress arousal, we see effects that override normal aging, making our telomeres look like they are from a significantly older person. When we look at groups of people with psychiatric disorders related to dysregulated emotional responses, especially depression, and compare them to controls who have never experienced these disorders, they consistently have shorter telomeres."

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Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

Did you know loneliness is estimated to shorten lifespan by 15 years? "Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity," says former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. "Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, loneliness decreases performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly." So call your mother, please.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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