How would it feel if I told you the power to live a long and healthy life was in your own hands? Modern medicine puts a lot of stock in our genes, but a Danish Twin Study found that only around 20 percent of how long we live is determined by our genes. (1) The rest is up to us. I've come across an amazing study done in 2004 that suggests healthy lifestyle changes can prevent disease and lengthen life.
The 2004 HALE study (Healthy Aging: A Longitudinal Study in Europe) absolutely blew me away. This research included over 2,000 participants, aged 70 to 90, and found that following a Mediterranean diet and healthy lifestyle is associated with more than 50 percent lower rates of mortality. (2) Yes, 50 percent! The researchers looked specifically at deaths from coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Ladies and gentlemen, this study suggests that the power is in our hands. As I said in my last blog on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Event) study, if this approach to diet and lifestyle could be bottled and prescribed, it would be mandatory in all health care practices. And we'd be charged with malpractice if we didn't prescribe it!
While you may hear that most people would rather pop a pill than change their lives, I'm not sure this is entirely true. I know a lot of patients who want to make and have made amazing changes in their lives for the sake of their health. They just needed the opportunity to do so. Don't get me wrong, I know that in many cases, medication is necessary and has saved countless lives. But there are also many instances where changes in diet and lifestyle have saved lives as well.
Paving Your Own Path To Health And Longevity
More and more people are battling long-term illnesses, and with changes on the health insurance horizon, we have to be prepared to take our health into our own hands. Studies like HALE and the Blue Zones project -- an organization researching why and how certain pockets of the world live to over 100 years old -- reaffirm that the power is in our own hands. There are many things you can do stay healthy well into old age (my favorites are below). Be sure to communicate with your practitioner to let her/him know that you are willing to take steps to change your health in order to avoid prescription drugs or medical procedures. If your doctor isn't willing to work with you, it might be time to find one who will.
My top six ideas for staying healthy based on my own practice and on the HALE study results:
1. Eat a (mostly) plant-based diet. This includes vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. Limit red meat and dairy, but be sure to include fish as a good source of protein and healthy fat.
2. Eat quality fats. The HALE study gave higher scores to those who ate more monounsaturated fats like olive oil, canola and sunflower oil than those who ate the more damaging saturated fats like butter, animal fat and dairy products. Fat is crucial to your health, but having healthy fats makes a difference.
3. Take a high-quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement. This is a great way to cover your bases and be sure your cells are getting all the necessary nutrients to function. The HALE study doesn't look at multivitamin or omega-3 use, but this is a simple step I've found incredibly helpful for women as they age.
4. Engage in physical activity. Exercise is often made to be a bigger deal that it needs to be these days. As long as you are moving your body daily and increasing your heart rate, your body is benefiting. Find something you truly love. I've recently discovered dancing is my favorite form of exercise!
5. Limit alcohol and sugar. The HALE study found that there was no difference in survival between those who consumed 1 gram of alcohol vs. those who consumed 30 grams (1/4 cup) per day, so moderate amounts of alcohol, preferably red wine, are okay. Sugar has no nutritional value and can cause blood sugar spikes, which can lead to inflammation. It's best to save sugar for special occasions.
Find ways that work for YOU to reduce stress daily. This concept was not included in the HALE study, but is certainly a proven benefit to your health. What's often most difficult for my patients is finding what works for them. Stress is individual and so are the solutions. Commit to experimenting with stress reduction concepts. If there are past emotional issues that are getting in the way of your current life, we know from ACE study researcher, Dr. Vincent Felitti, that it helps just to acknowledge these issues. Whether it means seeing a counselor, talking to a friend or loved one or simply writing your feelings down, this kind of recognition can help immensely.
Medicine That Truly Works
As health care continues to change, I can't help but think that there is a better way! In my own practice, I've seen how changing what my patients eat, how they exercise, how they think and how they live can make a gigantic difference in the numbers on their lab results, in their weight and their overall health and wellness. And we now have scientific proof to back this up. What are we waiting for? Though it may be difficult for the current health care model to embrace these commonsense ideas, you as a patient can make your own educated decisions.
For more on healthy eating and the Mediterranean diet, read my article Omega-3s, phytonutrients, and the Mediterranean diet.
1. Herskind, AM, et al. 1996. The heritability of human longevity: a population-based study of 2872 Danish twin pairs born 1870-1900. Hum Genet, 97(3), 319-23. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8786073.
2. Knoops, KT, et al. 2004. Mediterranean diet, lifestyle factors, and 10-year mortality in elderly European men and women: the HALE product. JAMA, 292(12), 1433-9. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15383513.
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