7 things health experts said were good for you in 2016

From sex to carbohydrates, here's what the experts recommended to us for healthy living this year

A little dirt never hurt anybody.
(Image credit: iStock)

Every year, scientists gain a little more insight into what we need to do to lead long, healthy lives. Here are a few of this year's biggest additions to that list, plus some fresh evidence for those timeless good habits like exercise and reading.

1. Exercise could help your brain stay young and lower your chances of cancer. In a study involving about 900 adults, those who did little or no regular physical activity experienced cognitive decline equivalent to 10 more years of aging compared with their more active peers. Early take-up was important: Exercise didn't appear to help people who were already showing signs of cognitive decline. Another study found that people who do the equivalent of about two and a half hours of walking a week have a lower risk for 13 different forms of cancer. "If people understand that physical activity can influence their risk for cancer," says lead author Steven Moore, "then that might provide yet one more motivating factor to become active."

2. Carbs may not be so bad after all. While it is widely assumed that a high-carb diet leads to weight gain, researchers who looked into the eating habits of more than 23,000 Italians found that those who ate more pasta actually tended to have a lower body mass index. They speculated that pasta eaters were more likely to follow the Mediterranean diet, which is heavy on fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Separate research concluded that carb-rich whole grains like oats and quinoa also have significant health benefits: Adults who ate three or more daily servings had a 20 percent lower risk of dying early. "Multiple individual studies consistently revealed a reduced risk of early death among people who consumed more whole grains," says senior author Qi Sun.

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3. Sex may keep older people mentally sharp. In a British study of men and women ages 50 to 89, the sexually active participants scored higher in memory tests and other cognitive measures than those who got busy less often. Physical intimacy increases levels of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain; researchers speculate that these "feel-good" hormones could improve neural connections, helping to ward off age-related mental decline. "What we need to clarify now," says study leader Hayley Wright, "is whether engaging in sexual activity leads to better cognitive function, or whether people who have higher cognitive functioning are those who tend to remain sexually active."

4. Dirt helps children stave off allergies. Kids are often scolded for biting their nails or sucking their thumbs, but researchers in New Zealand found that adults who grew up with these bad habits were much less likely to develop allergies to things like pets, grass, and dust mites. Their findings suggest that the immune system may benefit from early exposure to microbes. "Being too clean isn't that good for you," says researcher Stephanie Lynch. "Parents shouldn't be afraid to let their kids get dirty or let them have dirt under their nails."

5. Books may make you live longer. Researchers at Yale University found that adults ages 50 and over who read a book for at least 30 minutes a day lived for an average of almost two years longer than those who don't. Becoming engrossed in a love story, mystery, or thriller may trigger cognitive processes — such as empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence — that can help promote longevity. Reading newspapers and magazines didn't have the same effect. "The benefits of reading books," the study's authors conclude, "include a longer life in which to read them."

6. Cutting calories may improve your entire quality of life, not just your waistline. In a small study, a group of healthy, non-obese adults reduced their daily calorie intake by 12 percent for two years. Not only did they lose an average of 17 pounds, they also enjoyed improved sleep, better moods, and an enhanced sex drive. Once people "get over the hump" and start dropping pounds, says co-author Corby Martin, "their hunger levels subside a bit and they start to feel the benefits of the weight loss."

7. Friends and family can be as important to your health as diet and exercise. A University of North Carolina study found that social isolation increases risk of high blood pressure more than diabetes, and that lonely people are 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those who are socially active. Friends can "buffer some of the effects of stress, and/or help with coping," says lead author Kathleen Mullan Harris. Separate research suggested that older people tend to live longer when they count a family member other than their spouse among their closest confidants.

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