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A prospective cohort study of health behavior profiles after age 50 and mortality risk

Benjamin A Shaw1* and Neda Agahi2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health, University at Albany, One University Place, Rensselaer, NY, 12144, USA

2 Aging Research Center, Karolinska Institutet/Stockholm University, Gavlegatan 16, 113 30, Stockholm, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:803  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-803

Published: 18 September 2012



This study examines the mortality risk associated with distinct combinations of multiple risk behaviors in middle-aged and older adults, and assesses whether the mortality risks of certain health behaviors are moderated by the presence of other risk behaviors.


Data for this prospective cohort study are from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationwide sample of adults older than 50 years. Baseline data are from respondents (n = 19,662) to the 1998 wave of the HRS. Twelve distinct health behavior profiles were created, based on each respondent’s smoking, physical activity, and alcohol use status in 1998. Mortality risk was estimated through 2008 using Cox regression.


Smoking was associated with elevated risk for mortality within all behavioral profiles, but risk was greatest when combined with heavy drinking, both for middle-aged (ages 51–65) and older (ages 66+) adults. Profiles that included physical inactivity were also associated with increased mortality risk in both age groups. However, the impact of inactivity was clearly evident only among non-smokers; among smokers, the risk of inactivity was less evident, and seemingly overshadowed by the risk of smoking. Moderate drinking was protective relative to abstinence among non-smokers, and relative to heavy drinking among smokers.


In both middle-aged and older adults, multiple unhealthy behaviors increase mortality risk. However, the level of risk varies across unique combinations of unhealthy behaviors. These findings highlight the role that lifestyle improvements could play in promoting healthy aging, and provide insight into which behavioral combinations should receive top priority for intervention.