Using “microlives” to communicate how your habits may kill you

A daily loss or gain of 30 minutes can be termed a microlife.

The loss of a single microlife can be associated with:

- smoking two cigarettes
- taking two extra alcoholic drinks
- eating a portion of red meat
- being 5 kg overweight
- watching 2 hours of television a day

Gains are associated with:

- taking a statin daily (1 microlife)
- taking just one alcoholic drink a day (1 microlife)
- 20 minutes of moderate exercise daily (2 microlives)
- a diet including fresh fruit and vegetables daily (4 microlives)

Demographic associations can also be expressed in these units:

- being female rather than male (4 microlives a day)
- Swedish rather than Russian (21 a day for men)
- living in 2010 rather than 1910 (15 a day)

This form of communication allows a general, non-academic audience to make rough but fair comparisons between the sizes of chronic risks, and is based on a metaphor of “speed of ageing,” which has been effective in encouraging cessation of smoking.

The metaphor of speed of ageing and use of the term microlife are intended for popular rather than scientific consumption, but they could also be useful for health professionals. They could perhaps best be communicated with phrases such as “When averaged over a lifetime habit of many people, it is as if each burger were taking 30 minutes off their life.”


Using speed of ageing and “microlives” to communicate the effects of lifetime habits and environment. BMJ 2012;345:e8223.
Image source:, public domain.

Comments from Google Plus:

Allan Palmer: Heard this on one of our national radio programs -

Seems a really really elegant way of explaining things.

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