In 1979, Professor Peter Elwood and his team at Cardiff University launched a long-term study investigating how people's lifestyles affected their health. The Caerphilly Cohort Study is the longest-running of its kind and involved 90 per cent of the middle aged men living in the county at the time. The findings, while hardly surprising, have been described as ‘a wake up call’ by Elwood.
The 2,500 men involved were rated throughout the study according to five healthy behaviours: not smoking, maintaining a low BMI, performing regular exercise, eating healthily and drinking in moderation.
Regular exercise was considered to be two miles walking or 10 miles cycling five days a week. Healthy eating meant less than 30 per cent of calories from fat and consumption of three or more portions of fruit and veg a day (partly because consumption within the community was so low at that time). In terms of alcohol, participants needed to drink fewer than 21 units a week to be considered healthy, while BMI needed to be 18-25.
The study found that those who followed at least four of the five specified healthy steps were 60 per cent less likely to develop dementia. Similar reductions were seen in the risk of heart attacks and strokes, along with a 40 per cent drop in the risk of developing cancer and a 70 per cent drop in the risk of developing diabetes.
"Following these steps did not give them complete protection against disease but the men who developed a disease did so at a much older age than the men neglectful of their lifestyle.
"The development of heart disease was delayed by up to 12 years, and it was up to around an additional six years before dementia took its grip. It shows that following a healthy lifestyle staves off disease and premature death."
Only 25 participants managed to stick to the recommendations in all five categories and they celebrated this week at a party held by the research team.
The Telegraph reports that 80-year-old retired teacher, Leighton Jones rides 35 miles a week near his home in Caerphilly and walks up to two miles every other day.
"I have followed the healthy steps for many years now and feel pretty fit. Cycling keeps my body fit while scrabble keep the mind fit. I do have a beer or wine most nights but I drink in moderation."
Ray Grace, also 80, still referees college American football matches and walks and jogs two miles every day near his home in the village of Llanbradach.
If the conclusions seem obvious now, that is in part thanks to the study itself which has been hugely influential, having inspired more than 400 research papers.
However, Elwood says that these lessons still need to be learnt:
"The appalling fact is that recent surveys across the whole of Wales yield almost identical proportions of men and women following the healthy and the unhealthy lifestyles that had been found in Caerphilly 35 years ago. As a nation, we must wake up to the preventive power of living a healthy life."