Can You Create Your Personal Fountain Of Youth?

Can A Healthy Lifestyle Improve Your Healthspan?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fountain Of YouthEver since Ponce de Leon led an expedition to the Florida coast in 1513, we have been searching for the mythical “Fountain Of Youth”. What does that myth mean?

Supposedly, just by immersing yourself in that fountain you would be made younger. You would experience all the exuberance and health you enjoyed when you were young. There have been many snake oil remedies over the years that have promised that. They were all frauds.

But what if you had it in your power to live longer and to retain your youthful health for most of those extra years. The ability to live healthier longer is something that scientists call “healthspan”. But you can think of it as your personal “Fountain Of Youth”.

Now comes the important question, “Can a healthy lifestyle improve your healthspan?” We know a healthy lifestyle is good for us. Most of us know what a healthy lifestyle is. But it’s so hard. Is it worth it? Will it actually increase our lifespan? Will it increase our healthspan?

Today I am sharing two studies from the prestigious Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that answer those questions.

How Were The Studies Done?

clinical studyThese studies started by combining the data from two major clinical trials:

  • The Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2014.
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2014.

These two clinical trials enrolled 78,865 women and 42,354 men and followed them for an average of 34 years. During this time there were 42,167 deaths. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. Furthermore, the design of these clinical trials was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 34 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
    • The questionnaires also captured information on medicines taken and lifestyle characteristics such as body weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
  • For analysis of diet quality, the investigators use something called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index”. [The original Healthy Eating Index was developed about 10 years ago based on the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. Those guidelines have since been updated, and the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index” is based on the updated guidelines.] You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index below, so you can see what is involved.
  • Finally, the investigators included five lifestyle-related factors – diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and BMI (a measure of obesity) – in their estimation of a healthy lifestyle. Based on the best available evidence, they defined “low-risk” in each of these categories. Study participants were assigned 1 point for each low-risk category they achieved. Simply put, if they were low risk in all 5 categories, they received a score of 5. If they were low risk in none of the categories, they received a score of 0.
  • Low risk for each of these categories was defined as follows:
    • Low risk for a healthy diet was defined as those who scored in the top 40% in the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
    • Low risk for smoking was defined as never smoking.
    • Low risk for physical activity was defined as 30 minutes/day of moderate or vigorous activities.
    • Low risk for alcohol was defined as 0.5-1 drinks/day for women and 0.5-2 drinks/day for men.
    • Low risk for weight was defined as a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2).

Can A Healthy Lifestyle Improve Your Healthspan?

Older Couple Running Along BeachThe investigators compared participants who scored as low risk in all 5 categories with participants who scored as low risk in 0 categories (which would be typical for many Americans). For simplicity, I will refer to people who scored as low risk in 5 categories as having a “healthy lifestyle” and those who scored as low risk in 0 categories as having an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

The results of the first study were:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy of 93 versus 79).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy was 87 versus 75).
  • It was not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors of the study concluded: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults. Our findings suggest that the gap in life expectancy between the US and other developed countries could be narrowed by improving lifestyle factors.”

The results of the second study were:

  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 85 years versus 74 years).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 81 years versus 73 years).
  • Again, disease-free life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors concluded: “Adherence to a healthy lifestyle at mid-life [They started their analysis at age 50] is associated with a longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

Can You Create Your Personal Fountain Of Youth?

questionsI posed the question at the beginning of this article, “Can you create your personal Fountain Of Youth”?” These two studies showed that you can improve both your life expectancy and your disease-free life expectancy by simply changing your lifestyle. So, the answer to the original question appears to be, “Yes, you can improve your healthspan. You can create your personal “Fountain of Youth.”

However, as a nation we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The percentage of US adults adhering to a healthy lifestyle has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to 8% in 2001-2006.

Finally, I know you have some questions, and I have answers.

Question: What about supplementation? Will it also improve my healthspan?

Answer: When the investigators analyzed the data, they found that those with the healthiest lifestyles were also more likely to be taking a multivitamin. So, they attempted to statistically eliminate any effect of supplement use on the outcomes. That means these studies cannot answer that question.

However, if you calculate your Alternate Healthy Eating Index below, you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

Question: I cannot imagine myself reaching perfection in all 5 lifestyle categories? Should I even try to achieve low risk in one or two categories?

Answer: The good news is that there was a linear increase in both life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy as people went from low-risk in one category to low-risk in all 5 categories. I would encourage you to try and achieve low risk status in as many categories as possible, but very few of us, including me, achieve perfection in all 5 categories.

Question: I am past 50 already. Is it too late for me to improve my healthspan?

Answer: Diet and some of the other lifestyle behaviors were remarkably constant over 34 years in both the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study. That means that the lifespan and healthspan benefits reported in these studies probably resulted from adhering to a healthy lifestyle for most of their adult years.

However, it is never too late to start improving your lifestyle. You may not achieve the full benefits described in these studies, but you still can add years and disease-free years to your life.

How To Calculate Your Alternative Healthy Eating Index 

You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index score by simply adding up the points you score for each food category below.

Vegetables

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = 1 cup green leafy vegetables or ½ cup for all other vegetables.

Do not count white potatoes or processed vegetables like French fries or kale chips.

Fruits

Count 2½ points for each serving you eat per day (up to 4 servings).

One serving = 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries.

          (do not count fruit juice or fruit incorporated into desserts or pastries). 

Whole Grains

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = ½ cup whole-grain rice, bulgur and other whole grains, cereal, and pasta or 1 slice of bread.

(For processed foods like pasta and bread, the label must say 100% whole grain).

Sugary Drinks and Fruit Juice

Count 10 points if you drink 0 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

One serving = 8 oz. fruit juice, sugary soda, sweetened tea, coffee drink, energy drink, or sports drink.

Nuts and Beans

Count 10 points if you eat 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

One serving = 1 oz. nuts or seeds, 1 Tbs. peanut butter, ½ cup beans, 3½ oz. tofu.

Red and Processed Meat

Count 10 points if you eat 0 servings per week.

Count 7 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 3 points for 3 servings per week (1 serving per day).

Count 0 points for ≥1½ servings per day.

One serving = 1½ oz. processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat)

          Or 4 oz. red meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, lamb chops, etc.)

Seafood

Count 10 points if you eat 2 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 1 serving per week.

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

1 serving = 4 oz.

Now that you have your total, the scoring system is:

  • 41 or higher is excellent
  • 37-40 is good
  • 33-36 is average (remember that it is average to be sick in this country)
  • 28-32 is below average
  • Below 28 is poor

Finally, for the purposes of these two studies, a score of 37 or higher was considered low risk.

The Bottom Line 

Two recent studies have developed a healthy lifestyle score based on diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use. When they compared the effect of lifestyle on both lifespan (life expectancy) and healthspan (disease-free life expectancy), they reported:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • It is not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Lifespan and healthspan increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) achieved.
  • These studies did not evaluate whether supplement use also affects healthspan.
    • However, if you calculate your diet with the Alternate Healthy Eating Index they used (see above), you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

For more details, including how to calculate your Alternative Healthy Eating Index, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Lifestyle Overcome Bad Genes?

Lifestyle, Genetics, And Dementia Risk 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Cognitive-DeclineAlzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are among the most feared diseases of aging. What use is it to have a healthy body, a loving family, and a successful career if you can’t remember any of it? You should be able to enjoy your Golden years, not see them slip through your fingers.

If you have a family history of dementia or have sent your DNA off for testing and learned you are genetically predisposed to dementia, you are probably worried.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Alzheimer’s is that the medical community has no answers. There are no drugs to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s and brain transplants are out of the question. Some medical professionals will tell you nothing can be done, but is that true?

Before I answer that question let me share a fictional story because it provides a clue. In 1997, when I was still a relatively young scientist, I saw a film called GAATACA. [If you are looking for an entertaining film to watch, it is still available on some streaming services.]

This film envisioned a future society in which parents had their sperm and eggs sequenced so that their children would be genetically perfect. In that society the term “love child” had been redefined as a child who had been conceived without prior DNA sequencing.

The hero of this film was, of course, a love child. He was born with a genetic predisposition for heart disease. He was considered inferior, a second-class citizen of this future world.

Without giving away the plot of the film (I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment for you if you are thinking of watching it), he overcame his genetic inferiority. With a strict regimen of diet and physical fitness he became stronger and healthier than many of his genetically perfect peers.

This is when I first began to realize that our genes do not have to determine our destiny. We have the power to overcome bad genetics. We also have the power to undermine good genetics.

With that in mind, let’s return to Alzheimer’s. Studies have suggested that a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But what about genetics? Will a healthy lifestyle only reduce your risk of dementia if your genetic risk is low, or will it be equally effective when your genetic risk is high? Can lifestyle overcome genetics?

The current study (A Tin et al, Neurology, 99: e154-e163, 2022) was designed to answer these questions.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThis study included 11,561 participants from the Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities (ARIC) study. The ARIC study recruited middle-aged adults (average age of 54) from both urban and rural areas of the United States and followed them for 26 years. The participants were 57% female and 53% white.

Simply put, the study was designed to look at the effect of a healthy lifestyle on the genetic risk of developing dementia.

A healthy lifestyle was defined based on something called “Life’s Simple 7” (LS7) score.

  • The LS7 score was developed by the American Heart Association to define the effect of lifestyle on the risk of developing heart disease. However, it works equally well for defining the effect of lifestyle on risk of developing dementia.
  • The LS7 score consists of 7 modifiable health factors.
    • The factors are diet, physical activity, BMI (a measure of obesity), smoking, total cholesterol, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose.
  • The data for deriving the LS7 scores were derived from data gathered from each participant when they enrolled in the ARIC study.
    • Diet was assessed by a 66-item food frequency questionnaire.
    • Physical activity and smoking were assessed in separate questionnaires.
    • BMI, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose were measured during a visit to a designated clinic at the beginning of the study.
  • Each modifiable health factor was separated into 3 categories (ideal, intermediate, and poor) and the highest score was assigned to the ideal category. The LS7 score was the sum of the scores from all 7 modifiable health factors.

Genetic risk of developing dementia was defined based on something called “The Genetic Risk Score” (GRS).

  • We have known for years that individuals of European descent who have the APOE ɛ4 gene variant have a 2 to 5-fold increased lifetime risk of developing dementia.
  • In recent years scientists have discovered several additional gene variants that increase the risk of dementia.
  • These have been combined with APOE ɛ4 to create a Genetic Risk Score for dementia.
  • The Genetic Risk Score for each participant was determined by DNA sequencing at the beginning of the study, with the highest score indicating the greatest risk for developing dementia.

The onset and severity of dementia were determined based on 7 clinic visits during the study.

  • Questionnaires were administered at each visit to assess self-reported dementia symptoms.
  • Cognitive tests were administered at visits 2 and 4.
  • Detailed cognitive and functional assessments were conducted at visits 5, 6, and 7.
  • The data were reviewed by an expert committee of physicians and neuropsychologists to determine dementia status.

Lifestyle, Genetics, And Dementia Risk

DNA TestingAt the end of the 26-year study:

  • When participants with the highest Genetic Risk Scores were compared to those with the lowest Genetic Risk Scores:
    • European American participants were 2.7-fold more likely to develop dementia.
    • African American participants were 1.55-fold more likely to develop dementia.
  • When participants with the highest LS7 (healthy lifestyle) scores were compared to those with the lowest LS7 scores:
    • European American participants were 40% less likely to develop dementia.
    • African American participants were 17% less likely to develop dementia.
    • A healthy lifestyle decreased the risk of developing dementia to a comparable extent at all levels of genetic risk for dementia.

The authors concluded, “Higher LS7 scores [a measure of a healthy lifestyle] are largely associated with a lower risk of incident dementia across strata of genetic risk [at all levels of genetic risk], supporting the use of LS7 [a healthy lifestyle] for maintaining brain health and offsetting genetic risk. More studies with larger study populations are needed…”

I should briefly comment on why African Americans were less responsive to both genetic risk and a healthy lifestyle than European Americans. The reasons for these discrepancies are not known, but:

  • There are socioeconomic factors and health disparities that increase the risk of dementia that are not included in the LS7 score.
  • A recent study has identified genetic risk factors for dementia that are unique to African Americans that are not included in the genetic risk score used in this study.

Can Lifestyle Overcome Bad Genes?

Dr. James Watson, who was co-discoverer of the DNA double helix and was heavily involved in the sequencing of the human genome, asked that he not be told about his risk of developing Alzheimer’s when his own DNA was sequenced in the early 2000’s. His reasoning was, “Why know the risk if you can’t change it?”

If the study I discussed today is true, you can modify the risk. Your genes don’t have to be your destiny. But is it true?

There is good reason to believe it might be true. Multiple studies have shown that each of the health factors included in LS7 score reduce the risk of developing dementia. However, most of those studies have not looked at the interaction between a healthy lifestyle and genetic risk.

Fortunately, there is another recent study that looked at the interaction between a healthy lifestyle and genetic risk of developing dementia.

  • This study used a different database (The UK Biobank study which enrolled 500,000 participants) and different criteria for defining a healthy lifestyle (diet, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol use).

However, the conclusions of this study were very similar:

  • People at high genetic risk were almost twice as likely to develop dementia as those at low genetic risk.
  • A healthy lifestyle decreased the risk of developing dementia by about 40% for both people at high genetic risk and for people at low genetic risk.

But this study went one step further than the study I discussed in this article. The British study reported that:

  • People at low genetic risk and an unhealthy lifestyle (the typical American) were just as likely to develop dementia as people at high genetic risk and a healthy lifestyle.

In other words, bad genetics does not doom you to Alzheimer’s and dementia. A healthy lifestyle can cut your risk almost in half. Conversely, good genetics is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You can squander the advantage of good genetics with an unhealthy lifestyle.

And, just like the hero of the movie I discuss at the beginning of this article, a healthy lifestyle may be able to overcome bad genes and make you just as healthy (with respect to the risk of developing dementia) as people with good genes and an unhealthy lifestyle – which includes most Americans.

The Bottom Line 

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are among the most feared diseases of aging. What use is it to have a healthy body, a loving family, and a successful career if you can’t remember any of it?

If you have a family history of dementia or have sent your DNA off for testing and learned you are genetically predisposed to dementia, you are probably worried.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Alzheimer’s is that the medical community has no answers. There are no drugs to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s and brain transplants are out of the question. Some medical professionals will tell you nothing can be done, but is that true?

Studies have suggested that a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But what about genetics? Will a healthy lifestyle only reduce your risk of dementia if your genetic risk is low, or will it be equally effective when your genetic risk is high? Can lifestyle overcome genetics?

A recent study was designed to answer these questions. It found:

  • When participants with the highest Genetic Risk Scores were compared to those with the lowest Genetic Risk Scores:
    • They were 1.5 to 2.7-fold more likely to develop dementia.
  • When participants with the highest LS7 (healthy lifestyle) scores were compared to those with the lowest LS7 scores:
    • They were 17% to 40% less likely to develop dementia.
  • A healthy lifestyle decreased the risk of developing dementia to a comparable extent at all levels of genetic risk for dementia.

The authors concluded, “Higher LS7 scores [a measure of a healthy lifestyle] are largely associated with a lower risk of incident dementia across strata of genetic risk [at all levels of genetic risk], supporting the use of LS7 [a healthy lifestyle] for maintaining brain health and offsetting genetic risk. More studies with larger study populations are needed…”

This, and other studies discussed in this issue of “Health Tips For The Professor” suggest that your genes don’t have to determine your destiny. You can overcome bad genes with a healthy lifestyle.

For more details on this study, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Which Diet Is Best?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia don’t happen overnight. The first symptoms of cognitive decline are things like forgetting names, where you left things, what you did last week. For most people it just keeps getting worse.

Can diet protect your mind? Recent studies have given us a ray of hope. For example, several meta-analyses have shown that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 25-48% lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

However, there were several limitations to the studies included in these meta-analyses. For example:

  • For most of the studies the diet was assessed only at the beginning of the study. We have no idea whether the participants followed the same diet throughout the study. This means, we cannot answer questions like:
    • What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet?
    • Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet?
  • These studies focused primarily on the Mediterranean diet. This leaves the question:
    • What about other healthy diets? Is there something unique about the Mediterranean diet, or do other healthy diets also reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

This study (C Yuan et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115: 232-243, 2022) was designed to answer those questions.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe investigators utilized data from The Nurse’s Health Study. They followed 49,493 female nurses for 30 years from 1984 to 2014. The average age of the nurses in 1984 was 48 years, and none of them had symptoms of cognitive decline at the beginning of the study.

The nurse’s diets were analyzed in 1984, 1986, and every 4 years afterwards until 2006. Diets were not analyzed during the last 8 years of the study to eliminate something called “reverse causation”. Simply put, the investigators were trying to eliminate the possibility that participants in the study might change their diet because they were starting to notice symptoms of cognitive decline.

The data from the dietary analyses were used to calculate adherence to 3 different healthy diets:

  • The Mediterranean diet.
  • The DASH diet. The DASH diet was designed to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. But you can think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.
  • The diet recommended by the USDA. Adherence to this diet is evaluated by something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index or AHEI.

Adherence to each diet was calculated by giving a positive score to foods that were recommended for the diet and a negative score for foods that were not recommended for the diet. For more details, read the article.

In 2012 and 2014 the nurses were asked to fill out questionnaires self-assessing the early stages of cognitive decline. They were asked if they had more trouble than usual:

  • Remembering recent events or remembering a short list of items like a grocery list (measuring memory).
  • Understanding things, following spoken instructions, following a group conversation, or following a plot in a TV program (measuring executive function).
  • Remembering things from one second to the next (measuring attention).
  • Finding ways around familiar streets (measuring visuospatial skills).

The extent of cognitive decline was calculated based on the number of yes answers to these questions.

Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Vegan FoodsHere is what the investigators found when they analyzed the data:

At the beginning of the study in 1984 there were 49,493 female nurses with an average age of 48. None of them had symptoms of cognitive decline.

  • By 2012-2014 (average age = 76-78) 46.9% of them had cognitive decline and 12.3% of them had severe cognitive decline.

Using the data on dietary intake and the rating systems specific to each of the diets studied, the investigators divided the participants into thirds based on their adherence to each diet. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? To answer this question the investigators averaged the dietary data obtained every 4 years between 1984 and 2006 to obtain cumulative average scores for adherence to each diet. When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA-recommended healthy diet (as measured by the AHEI score).

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? To answer this question, the investigators looked at participants who started with the lowest adherence to each diet and improved to the highest adherence by the end of the study. This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

There were a few other significant observations from this study.

  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was greater for nurses who had high blood pressure.
    • This is an important finding because high blood pressure increases the risk of cognitive decline.
  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was also greater for nurses who did not have the APOE-ɛ4 gene.
    • This illustrates the interaction of diet and genetics. The APOE-ɛ4 gene increases the risk of cognitive decline. Healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline in nurse with the APOE-ɛ4 gene but not to the same extent as for nurses without the gene.

This study did not investigate the mechanism by which healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline, but the investigators speculated it might be because these diets:

  • Were anti-inflammatory.
  • Supported the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

Which Diet Is Best?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsIn a sense this is a trick question. That’s because this study did not put the participants on different diets. It simply analyzed the diets the women were eating in different ways. And while the algorithms they were using were diet-specific, there was tremendous overlap between them. For more specifics on the algorithms used to estimate adherence to each diet, read the article.

That is why the investigators concluded that all three diets they analyzed reduced the risk of cognitive decline rather than highlighting a specific diet. However, based on this and numerous previous studies the evidence is strongest for the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the MIND diet. While it was not included in this study, the MIND diet:

  • Was specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline.
  • Can be thought of as a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Includes data from studies on the mind-benefits of individual foods. For example, it recommends berries rather than all fruits.

The MIND diet has not been as extensively studied as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, but there is some evidence that it may be more effective at reducing cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean or DASH diets alone.

Which Foods Are Best?

AwardThe authors of this study felt it was more important to focus on foods rather than diets. This is a better approach because we eat foods rather than diets. With that in mind they analyzed their data to identify the foods that prevented cognitive decline and the foods increased cognitive decline. This is what they found:

  • Fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) reduced the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats increased the risk of cognitive decline.

While this study did not specifically look at the effect of processed foods on cognitive decline, diets high in the mind-healthy foods listed above are generally low in sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Question MarkThe question, “Can diet protect your mind”, is not a new one. Several previous studies have suggested that healthy diets reduce the risk of cognitive decline, but this study breaks new ground. It shows for the first time that:

  • Long-term adherence to a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by up to 40%.
    • This was a 30-year study, so we aren’t talking about “diet” in the traditional sense. We aren’t talking about short-term diets to drop a few pounds. We are talking about a life-long change in the foods we eat.
  • If you currently have a lousy diet, it’s not too late to change. You can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by switching to a healthier diet.
    • This is perhaps the best news to come out of this study.

Based on current evidence, the best diets for protecting against cognitive decline appear to be the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

And if you don’t like restrictive diets, my advice is to:

  • Eat more fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil).
  • Eat less red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats.
  • Eat more plant foods and less animal foods.
  • Eat more whole foods and less sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

And, of course, a holistic approach is always best. Other lifestyle factors that help reduce your risk of cognitive decline include:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Weight control.
  • Socialization.
  • Memory training (mental exercises).

The Bottom Line 

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

A recent study looked at the effect of diet on cognitive decline in women. The study started with middle-aged women (average age = 48) and followed them for 30 years. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA recommendations for a healthy diet.

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

For more details on the study, which diets, and which foods are best for protecting your mind, and what this study means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Diet Add Years To Your Life?

Which Foods Have The Biggest Effect On Longevity? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fountain Of YouthEveryone over 50 is searching for the elusive “Fountain Of Youth”.

  • We want to look younger.
  • We want to feel younger.
  • We want the energy we had in our 20s.
  • We want to be rid of the diseases of aging.

The list goes on!

But how do we do that? Pills and potions abound that claim to reverse the aging process. Most just reverse your wallet.

  • Should we train for marathons or bodybuilding contests?
  • Should we meditate or do yoga to relieve stress?
  • Should we get serious about losing weight?
  • Should we get more sleep?
  • Is there some miracle diet that can slow the aging process?

All the above probably slow the aging process, but the evidence is best for the effect of diet on aging. Several recent meta-analyses have looked at the effect of diet on the risk of premature deaths. In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I review a study (LT Fadnes et al, PLoS Medicine, February 8, 2022) that combines the best of these meta-analyses into a single database and provides a provocative insight into the effect of diet on longevity.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study combined data from recent meta-analyses looking at the impact of various food groups on the risk of premature deaths with the Global Burden of Disease Study which provides population-level estimates of life years lost due to dietary risk factors.

The authors then developed a new algorithm that allowed them to estimate how different diets affect sex- and age-specific life expectancy.

They divided the population into three different diet categories based on their intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, eggs, dairy, refined grains, red meat, processed meat, white meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and added plant oils. The diet categories were:

  • Typical Western Diet (TW). This diet was based on average consumption data from the United States and Europe. This was their baseline.
  • Optimal diet (OD). This diet is similar to a vegan or semi-vegetarian diet. However, it was not a purely vegan diet nor a purely semi-vegetarian diet. Instead, it represented the best diet people in this study were consuming.
  • Feasibility diet (FA). This diet recognizes that few people are willing to make the kind of changes required to attain an optimal diet. It is halfway between the Typical Western Diet and the Optimal Diet.

To help you understand these diets based on the foods the study participants were eating, here are the comparisons in terms of daily servings:

Food TW Diet FA Diet OD Diet
Whole grains 1.5 servings 4.3 servings 7 servings
Vegetables 3 servings 4 servings 5 servings
Fruits 2.5 servings 3.75 servings 5 servings
Nuts 0 serving* 0.5 serving* 1 serving*
Legumes 0 serving** 0.5 serving** 1 serving**
Fish 0.25 serving 0.5 serving 1 serving
Eggs 1 egg 0.75 egg 0.5 egg
Dairy 1.5 servings 1.25 servings 1 serving
Refined grains 3 servings 2 servings 1 serving
Red meat 1 serving 0.5 serving 0 serving
Processed meat 2 servings 1 serving 0 serving
White meat 0.75 serving 0.6 serving 0 serving
Sugar-sweetened beverages 17 oz 8.5 oz 0 oz
Added plant oils 2 tsp 2 tsp 2 tsp

*1 serving = 1 handful of nuts

**1 serving = 1 cup of beans, lentils, or peas

Using their algorithm, the authors asked what the effect on longevity would be if people changed from a typical western diet to one of the other diets at age 20, 60, or 80 and maintained the new diet for at least 10 years. The 10-year requirement is based on previous studies showing that it takes around 10 years for dietary changes to affect the major killer diseases like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.

Finally, the authors improved the accuracy of their estimates of the effect of diet on longevity by taking into account the quality of each study included in their analysis. I will discuss the importance of this below.

Can Diet Add Years To Your Life?

The results were impressive.

The authors estimated that if people in the United States were to change from a typical western diet to an “optimal diet” and maintain it for at least 10 years,

…starting at age 20, men would live 13 years longer and women would live 10.7 years longer.

…starting at age 60, men would live 8.8 years longer and women would live 8 years longer.

…starting at age 80, both men and women would live 3.4 years longer.

But what if you weren’t a vegan purist? What if you only made half the changes you would need to make to optimize your diet? The news was still good.

The authors estimated that people in the United States were to change from a typical western diet to a “feasibility diet” and maintain it for at least 10 years,

…starting at age 20, men would live 7.3 years longer and women would live 6.2 years longer.

…starting at age 60, men would live 4.8 years longer and women would live 4.5 years longer.

…starting at age 80, both men and women would live ~2 years longer.

The authors concluded, “A sustained dietary change may give substantial health gains for people of all ages for both optimized and feasible [diet] changes. [These health gains] could translate into an increase in life expectancy of more than 10 years. Gains are predicted to be larger the earlier the dietary changes are initiated in life.”

Which Foods Have The Biggest Effect On Longevity?

The algorithm the authors developed also allowed them to look at which foods have the biggest effect on longevity. The authors estimated when changing from a typical western diet to an optimal diet, the greatest gains in longevity were made by eating:

  • More legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and…
  • Less red and processed meat.

The authors concluded, “An increase in the intake of legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and a reduction in the intake of red meat and processed meats, contributed most to these gains [in longevity].”

However, this conclusion needs to be interpreted with caution. We also need to recognize that an “optimal diet” was defined as the best diet people in this study were eating. In addition, the effect of different foods on longevity depends on:

  • The quality of the individual studies with that food, and…
  • The difference in consumption of that food in going from a western diet to an optimal diet.

For example:

  • Legumes, whole grains, nuts, red & processed meat made the list because the quality of data was high and the difference in consumption between the typical western diet and optimal diet was significant.
  • The quality of data for an effect of fruits and vegetables was also high. For example, one major study concluded that consuming 10 servings a day of fruits and vegetables a day reduces premature death by 31% compared to consumption of less than 1 serving a day. However, the difference in consumption of fruits and vegetables between the western and optimal diets in this study was small, so fruits and vegetables didn’t make the list.
  • Eggs and white meat didn’t make the list because the quality of data was low for those foods. Simply put,  that means that there was a large variation in effect of those foods on longevity between studies.
  • Other foods didn’t make the list because the quality of data was only moderate and/or the difference in intake was small.

So, the best way to interpret this these data is:

  • This study suggests that consuming more legumes, whole grains, and nuts and less red & processed meats has a significant beneficial effect on health and longevity.
  • Consuming more fruits and vegetables is likely to have a significant benefit on health and longevity, but you would need to consume more than people did in this study to achieve these benefits. In the words of the authors, “Fruits and vegetables also have a positive health impact, but, for these food groups, the intake in a typical Western diet is closer to the optimal intake than for the other food groups.”
  • Other foods may impact health and longevity, but the data in this study are not good enough to be confident of an effect.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

This study is the best of many studies showing the benefit of a more plant-based diet on health and longevity. It particularly encouraging because it shows:

  • You can achieve significant benefit by switching to a more plant-based diet late in life. You get the biggest “bang for your buck” if you switch at age 20. But even making the switch at age 60 or 80 was beneficial.
  • You don’t need to be a “vegan purist”. While the biggest benefits were seen for people who came close to achieving a vegan or semi-vegetarian diet, people who only made half those changes saw significant benefits.

As I said above, this is a very strong study. However, the underlying data come from association studies, which can have confounding variables that influence the results.holistic approach

For example, people who eat more plant-based diets tend to weigh less and exercise more. And both of those variables can influence longevity. Each study attempted to statistically correct for those variables, but they still might have a slight influence on the results.

However, I don’t see that as a problem because, in my view, a holistic approach is always best. As illustrated on the right, we should be seeking a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, weight control, and exercise.

As for supplementation, both the vegan and semi-vegetarian diets tend to leave out whole food groups. Unless you are married to a dietitian, that means your diet is likely to be missing important nutrients.

The Bottom Line

A recent study asked whether changing from the typical western diet to a healthier, more plant-based diet could influence longevity. The results were very encouraging. The study showed that:

  • Changing to a healthier diet could add up to a decade to your lifespan.
  • The improvement in lifespan was greatest for those whose diets approached a vegan or semi-vegetarian diet, but a significant improvement in lifespan was seen for people who made only half those dietary improvements.
  • The improvement in lifespan was greatest for those who switched to a healthier diet in their 20’s, but significant improvements in lifespan were seen for people who didn’t change their diet until their 60’s or 80’s.

In terms of the foods that have the biggest effect on longevity.

  • This study suggests that consuming more legumes, whole grains, and nuts and less red & processed meats has a significant beneficial effect on health and longevity.
  • Consuming more fruits and vegetables is likely to have a significant benefit on health and longevity, but you would need to consume more than people did in this study to achieve those benefits.
  • Other foods may impact health and longevity, but the data in this study are not good enough to be confident of an effect.

The authors concluded, “A sustained dietary change may give substantial health gains for people of all ages for both optimized and feasible [diet] changes. [These health gains] could translate into an increase in life expectancy of more than 10 years. Gains are predicted to be larger the earlier the dietary changes are initiated in life.

An increase in the intake of legumes, whole grains, and nuts, and a reduction in the intake of red meat and processed meats, contributed most to these gains. Fruits and vegetables also have a positive health impact, but, for these food groups, the intake in a typical Western diet is closer to the optimal intake than for the other food groups.”

For more details about this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Cognitive-DeclineMost of us look forward to our golden years – that mystical time when we will be free from the workday pressures and have more time to spend with friends and family doing the things we love.

But cognitive decline can cast a dark cloud over those expectations.

  • By the age of 65, 11% of adults suffer from some degree of cognitive impairment.
  • And by the age of 80 the percentage of adults suffering from cognitive impairment has increased to 26-30%, depending on which study you cite.

The results of cognitive decline can be devastating.

  • First you start to lose the cherished memories of a lifetime.
  • Then comes confusion and an inability to perform basic tasks and participate in your favorite activities.
  • Eventually you may reach a stage where you no longer recognize the ones you love.

In short, cognitive decline can rob you of everything that makes you you.

The causes of cognitive decline are complex, but recent studies have pointed to the role of chronic inflammation in cognitive decline. If that is true, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The bad news is:
    • Some increase in chronic inflammation appears to be an inevitable consequence of aging.
    • Chronic inflammation can be caused by certain diseases that are beyond our control.
    • Chronic inflammation can be triggered by viral or bacterial infections.
  • The good news is that chronic inflammation is also controlled by your diet and lifestyle. For example, as I said above, chronic inflammation is often triggered by a viral infection, but whether the inflammation is mild or severe is strongly influenced by diet and lifestyle.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I share a study (S Charisis et al, Neurology, In Press, November 10, 2021) showing that diets high in inflammatory foods increase the risk of dementia. Then, I answer 3 important questions.

  • Can your diet cause you to lose your mind?
  • What is a mind-healthy diet?
  • What is a mind-healthy lifestyle?

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were taken from the first three years of the Hellenic Longitudinal Investigation of Aging and Diet (HELIAD), a study designed to look at the effect of diet on dementia and other neuropsychiatric conditions in the Greek population.

There were 1059 participants (40% male, average age = 75 at the beginning of the study) in this study. At the beginning of the study the participants completed a food frequency questionnaire administered by a trained dietitian. The foods were broken down into individual nutrients using the USDA Food Composition tables adapted for foods in the Greek diet.

The diet of each participant was then rated on a 15-point scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory based on something called the Diet Inflammation Index (DII).

Simply put, the DII is a validated assessment tool based on the effect of food nutrients on 6 inflammatory biomarkers found in the blood (IL-1β, IL-4, IL-6, IL-10, TNF-α, and CRP). Nutrients that decrease these markers are considered anti-inflammatory. Nutrients that increase these inflammatory biomarkers are considered pro-inflammatory.

For example, anti-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Carotenoids and flavonoids (found in fruits and vegetables).
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in cold-water fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds).
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (found in olive, avocado, and peanut oils).
  • Fiber (found in minimally processed plant foods).
  • Antioxidants, most B vitamins, and vitamin D.
  • Magnesium and zinc.
  • Garlic, onions, most herbs & spices.

Pro-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Refined carbohydrates.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Total fat.
  • Saturated fats.
  • Trans fats.

The participants were followed for 3 years, and all new diagnoses of dementia were recorded. The diagnoses were confirmed by a panel of neurologists and neuropsychologists.

Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

Forgetful Old ManAs described above, the diet of each participant in the study was rated on a 15-point DII (Diet Inflammatory Index) scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

What Is A Mind-Healthy Diet?

Vegan FoodsThis and other studies show that an anti-inflammatory diet is good for the mind. It helps protect us from cognitive decline and dementia. But what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

One hint comes from analyzing the diets of participants in this study:

  • Those with the lowest DII scores (most-anti-inflammatory diets) consumed 20 servings of fruit, 19 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of beans or other legumes, and 11 servings of coffee or tea each week. That’s almost 3 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables every day!
  • Those with the highest DII scores (most pro-inflammatory diets) consumed only half as many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
  • In short, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes is a good start.

I have described anti-inflammatory diets in more detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.” Let me summarize that article briefly.

Anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains.
  • Beans and other legumes.
  • Nuts, olive oil, avocados, and other sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Herbs and spices.

Pro-inflammatory foods include:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas, and sugary foods.
  • Foods high in saturated fats including fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive food. For example, gluten containing foods are pro-inflammatory only if you are sensitive to gluten.

If your goal is to reduce chronic inflammation and keep your mind sharp as a tack as you age, you should eat more anti-inflammatory foods and less pro-inflammatory foods.

Of course, we don’t just eat random foods, we follow dietary patterns. It should be apparent from what I have Mediterranean Diet Foodscovered above that whole food, primarily plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory. This is true for diets ranging from vegan through semi-vegetarian, to the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

All these diets are anti-inflammatory and likely protect the brain from cognitive decline. However, the best evidence for brain protection is for the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

  • The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to prevent cognitive decline in multiple studies.
  • The MIND diet is a combination the Mediterranean and DASH diets that was specifically designed to prevent cognitive decline. It has been shown to cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half.

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle?

Diet is just one aspect of a holistic approach for reducing cognitive decline as we age. Other important factors include:

  • Reduce excess body weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Reduce and/or manage stress.
  • Eliminate smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Socialize with friends and family who support you. Numerous studies have shown that a strong support network reduces dementia risk in the elderly.
  • Keep your brain active. Work crossword puzzles. Learn new things. An active brain is forced to lay down new neural pathways.

The Bottom Line 

Recent studies have suggested that chronic inflammation increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia as we age. Some causes of chronic inflammation are beyond our control, but others, such as diet, we can control.

Recently, a precise scoring system called the Diet Inflammatory Index (DII) has been developed. This scoring system allows studies to look at the correlation between the inflammatory potential of the diet and cognitive decline.

A recent study enrolled 1,000 participants with an average age of 75 in a 3-year study to determine the impact of diet on cognitive decline. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

For more details and a description of mind-healthy diets and a mind-healthy lifestyle read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health (https://www.chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/are-we-killing-our-children-with-kindness/). For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption.

In case you don’t understand why that is, here is what I said last week: “Because ultraprocessed foods are made in a factory, not grown on a farm:

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Even worse, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.”

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. Several studies have reported a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes in our children over the last 20 years.

Because diabetics can manage their blood sugar levels with insulin and/or a variety of drugs, many people consider it as just an inconvenience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diabetes is a deadly disease, and it is even deadlier when it appears early in life.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

The study (JM Lawrence et al, JAMA, 326: 717-727, 2021) I will discuss today is the largest and most comprehensive study of childhood diabetes to date.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study. This study collected data on physician-diagnosed cases of diabetes in 3.47 million children ages 19 or younger from 6 geographical areas in the US in 2001, 2009, and 2017.

The 6 geographical areas were:

  • Southern California (7 counties, including Los Angeles).
  • Colorado (14 counties, including Denver).
  • Ohio (8 counties, including Cincinnati)
  • South Carolina (4 counties, including Columbia).
  • Washington State (5 counties, including Seattle).
  • Indian Health Service users in select areas of Arizona and New Mexico.

The data on diabetes diagnoses were obtained by creating active surveillance networks composed of pediatric and adult endocrinologists, other clinicians, hospitals, and health plans in the study areas.

Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

IncreaseTo answer this question let’s start with a historical perspective:

  • In 1950 obesity in US children was rare and type 2 diabetes in children was practically unknown.
    • Since then, obesity rates have skyrocketed, and type 2 diabetes has followed along behind it.
  • Between 1925 and 1950 the prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children remained constant, but it has been steadily increasing since 1950.
    • Type 1 diabetes remains more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in our children, but the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has been increasing faster than type 1 diabetes.

Now let’s look at the results from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study:

Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children aged 10-19 increased from 0.34/1000 youths in 2001, to 0.46/1000 youths in 2009, to 0.67/1000 youths in 2017.
    • This is a 94% increase between 2001 and 2017. Put another way, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in our children has almost doubled in just 16 years!
    • The greatest increase was seen among Black (0.85/1000 youths), Hispanic (0.57/1000 youths), and American Indian (0.42/1000 youths) population groups.
  • These data are consistent with 3 previous studies reporting a doubling of type 2 diabetes in children over similar time periods.

Note: Since data collection ended in 2017, this study does not take into account the increase in type 2 diabetes caused by increased body weight and reduced activity in children during the pandemic. There are no firm data on the increase in type 2 diabetes in children during the pandemic, but some hospitals have reported increases of 50% to 300% in new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in 2020.

Prevalence of Type 1 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children aged 19 and younger increased from 1.48/1000 youths in 2001, to 1.93/1000 youths in 2009, to 2.15/1000 youths in 2017.
  • This is a 45% increase between 2001 and 2017.
    • The greatest increase was seen among White (0.93/1000 youths), Black (0.89/1000 youths), and Hispanic (0.59/1000 youths) population groups.
    • These data are consistent with a similar study of type 1 diabetes in children in Holland.

In summary:

  • This study documents a dramatic increase in the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in US children between 2001 and 2017.
  • Type 2 diabetes is still less prevalent than type 1 diabetes in US children, but it is increasing twice as fast.

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Question MarkWhen it comes to type 2 diabetes, the experts agree:

  • The increase in type 2 diabetes in children is directly related to the obesity epidemic, which is now impacting our children. The obesity epidemic is, in turn, caused by:
    • Decreased exercise. Video games and social media have replaced actual games played outside.

However, when it comes the increase in type 1 diabetes, the experts are perplexed. There is no easy explanation. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. With type 1 diabetics, their immune system starts attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in their pancreas. Consequently, they lose the ability to produce insulin.
  • The autoimmune response seen in type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genes and environment. Specifically:
    • Certain genes predispose to type 1 diabetes. However:
      • Only some people with those genes develop type 1 diabetes.
      • Our genetics doesn’t change with time, so genetics cannot explain the increases in type 1 diabetes we are seeing.
  • That leaves the environment. There are many hypotheses about how our children’s environment influences their risk of developing type 1 diabetes. However:
    • Some of these hypotheses involve things that have not changed over the last 15-20 years. They cannot explain the increase in type1 diabetes we are seeing in children.
    • Some of these hypotheses are not supported by good data. They are speculative.

With that in mind, I will list the top 5 current hypotheses and evaluate each of them.

#1: The viral infection hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that type 1 diabetes can be triggered by child with flucommon viral infections such as the flu.

  • This is a plausible hypothesis. Whenever our immune system is stimulated by invaders it sometimes goes rogue and triggers autoimmune responses.
  • It is also supported by good data. The onset of type 1 diabetes is often associated with a viral infection in genetically susceptible children.
  • However, prior to the pandemic viral infections have been constant. They haven’t changed over time. Therefore, they cannot explain an increase in type 1 diabetes between 2001 and 2017.

#2: The hygiene hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that when we raise our children in a sterile environment, their immune system doesn’t develop normally. Essentially the hypothesis is saying that it’s not a bad thing if your toddler eats some dirt and moldy fruits. However:

  • The data linking hygiene to food allergies is better than the data linking hygiene to autoimmune responses.
  • There is no evidence that hygiene practices have changed significantly between 2001 and 2017.

#3: The vitamin D hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that vitamin D deficiency is associated with the autoimmune response that causes type 1 diabetes.

  • One of the functions of vitamin D is to regulate the immune system.
  • As I have reported previously, suboptimal vitamin D levels are associated with increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • While we know that up to 61% of children in the US have suboptimal vitamin D levels, we don’t know whether that percentage has changed significantly in recent years.

happy gut bacteria#4: The gut bacteria hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that certain populations of gut bacteria increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. This is what we know.

  • Children who develop type 1 diabetes have a unique population of gut bacteria.
  • This population of gut bacteria also triggers inflammation, and chronic inflammation can lead to autoimmune responses.
  • A diet rich in highly processed foods supports growth of the same gut bacteria found in children with type 1 diabetes.
  • Consumption of highly processed foods has increased significantly in the last twenty years.

#5: The obesity hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that obesity increases the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

  • While the mechanism is not clear, childhood obesity is associated with both inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes.
  • Childhood obesity has increased dramatically in the past few years.

As you may have noticed, there are weaknesses to each of these hypotheses. This is why there is no current agreement among experts as to why type 1 diabetes is increasing in our children.

My guess is that none of these hypotheses can fully explain the increase in type 1 diabetes in our children, but that several of them may contribute to it.

What Can We Do?

Family Riding BicyclesWhatever the mechanism, the increase in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in our children is troubling. Unless this trend is reversed, we may be dooming our children to short, unhealthy lives. So, what can we, as concerned parents and grandparents, do?

For type 2 diabetes, the answer is clear.

1) Reverse the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in children’s diets. Encourage the consumption of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, and include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Set a good example as well.

2) Encourage more activity. Get them outside and moving. Create family activities that involve exercise.

3) Reverse the obesity epidemic. If we succeed in reversing the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in their diet and encouraging more activity, we can reverse the obesity epidemic without putting our children on crazy diets.

For type 1 diabetes, the answer is less clear because the cause for the increase in type 1 diabetes is uncertain. However, I will point out that:

1) Increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria that reduce inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases. For more detail on an anti-inflammatory diet, click here.

2) Reversing the obesity epidemic also reduces inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases.

3) Adequate vitamin D levels reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. My recommendation is to get your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels tested and supplement with vitamin D3 as needed, especially during the winter months.

The Bottom Line

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health. For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption, and the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. This week’s study looked at the prevalence of childhood diabetes in 3.47 million children from 6 geographical areas of the United States between 2001 and 2017. This study found:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children increased 94% between 2001 and 2017. It almost doubled.
  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children increased 45% between 2001 and 2017.

These statistics are tragic because diabetes is a deadly disease.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

For more details about this study, why the prevalence of diabetes in US children is increasing, and what we can do about it, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease

Best Way To Reduce Risk Of Breast Cancer

What Does The American Cancer Society Say About Reducing Breast Cancer Risk? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

breast cancerBreast cancer is a scary disease. The American Cancer Society tells us:

  • 281,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2021.
  • 43,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2021.
  • The good news is that both prevention and treatment of breast cancer have gotten much better:
    • The 5-year survival rate is 90%.
    • The 10-year survival rate is 84%.
    • For women over 50 the death rate has decreased by 1%/year between 2013 and 2018 (mainly due to recognition that hormone replacement therapy is a risk factor for breast cancer).
  • The bad news is:
    • The cost of breast cancer treatment can range from $50,000 to over $180,000.
    • The side effects of breast cancer treatment can be brutal.
      • For example, there is an effective treatment to prevent breast cancer recurrence for some forms of breast cancer, but many women discontinue the treatment after a few years because of the side effects.

So, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some simple changes you could make that would dramatically reduce your risk of developing breast cancer in the first place? There are lots of options for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer, but which one(s) should you choose?

  • Dr. Strangelove and his friends are only too happy to recommend their favorite potion, food, or diet.
  • There are long lists of foods you should avoid if you want to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • There are also lists of harmful chemicals in cleaners and other household products that you should avoid.

It can become confusing. It can become overwhelming. It would be easy to just throw up your hands and say, “I give up. I don’t know what to do.”

You may be thinking, “Why doesn’t someone simplify things by identifying the top few lifestyle changes that are most effective for reducing my risk of developing breast cancer?”

It turns out someone has. Today I will share two recent studies that have identified the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and I have ranked them from 1 to 6 in order of effectiveness.

What Is The Best Way To Reduce Risk Of Breast Cancer?

AwardThe first study (RM Tamimi et al, American Journal of Epidemiology, 184: 884-893, 2016 was designed to identify the major modifiable risk factors for invasive, postmenopausal breast cancer (The term “modifiable risk factors” refers to those risk factors that are under your control.

The study utilized data collected from the Nurses’ Health Study between 1980 and 2010. During that time 8,421 cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in 121,700 postmenopausal women in the study. The study looked at the effect of nonmodifiable and modifiable risk factors on the development of invasive breast cancer in these women.

  • Nonmodifiable risk factors included current age, age at which menstruation began, height, age of first birth, number of births, weight at age 18, family history of breast cancer, and prior benign breast disease.
  • Modifiable risk factors included weight change since age 18, alcohol consumption, physical activity level, breastfeeding, and postmenopausal hormone therapy use.

Here were the results from the study:

  • All the risk factors included in this study accounted for 70% of the risk of developing invasive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
  • Modifiable risk factors accounted for 34.6% of the risk of developing invasive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

When they analyzed the effect of modifiable risk factors on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer separately:

  • 44 pounds of weight gain since age 18 increased the risk by 50%.
  • Postmenopausal hormone replacement use increased the risk by 35%.
  • More than one alcoholic beverage/day increased the risk by 32%.
  • Low physical activity increased the risk by 7%.
  • Lack of breastfeeding increased the risk by 5%.

What About The Effect Of Diet On Breast Cancer Risk?

You may be wondering, “What about the effect of a healthy diet on my risk developing invasive breast cancer?” Unfortunately, the study I described above completely disregarded the effect of diet on breast cancer risk.

However, the second study (MS Farvid et al, International Journal of Cancer, 144: 1496-1510, 2019) I will discuss today partially addresses this issue. It uses the same database as the first study and looks at the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

When this study compared high versus low intake of fresh fruits and vegetable on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer:

  • Women eating >5.5 servings/day of fruits and vegetables had a 11% lower risk than women consuming ≤2.5 servings/day.
  • Women consuming >2.5 servings/day of fruit had a 9% lower risk than women consuming ≤0.5 servings/day.
  • Women consuming >4.5 servings/day of vegetables had a 9% lower risk than women consuming ≤0.5 servings/day.

While all fresh fruits and vegetables contributed to this effect:

  • The most protective fruits were berries and cantaloupe & melons.
  • The most protective vegetables were yams & sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables (such as kale, mustard greens, and chard), and cruciferous vegetables (such as Brussels sprouts).

The authors concluded, “Our findings support that higher intake of fruits and vegetables, and specifically cruciferous and yellow/orange vegetables, may reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially those that are more likely to be aggressive tumors.”

Now we are ready to answer your question, “Which lifestyle changes are most effective for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer?” If we combine the two studies and rank order the modifiable risk factors, it would look like this.

#1: Minimize weight gain during your adult years.

#2: Don’t use postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy unless absolutely necessary.

#3: Drink little or no alcohol.

#4: Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

#5: Be physically active.

#6: Breastfeed when possible.

What Does The American Cancer Society Say About Reducing The Risk Of Breast Cancer?

American Cancer SocietyThe advice of the American Cancer Society is remarkably similar. Here are their recommendations:

  1. Get to and stay at a healthy weight.

After menopause, most of your estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue increases the amount of estrogen your body makes, raising your risk of breast cancer. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to breast cancer.

If you are already at a healthy weight, stay there. If you are carrying extra pounds, try to lose some. Losing even a small amount of weight can also have other health benefits and is a good place to start.

3) Be physically active and avoid time spent sitting.

Current recommendations are to get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week. Getting to or exceeding 300 minutes is ideal.

In addition, you should limit sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, and other forms of screen-based entertainment. This is especially important if you spend most of your working day sitting.

3) Follow a healthy eating plan.

A healthy eating pattern includes a variety of vegetables, fiber-rich legumes (beans and peas), fruits in a variety of colors, and whole grains. It is best to avoid or limit red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, highly processed foods, and refined grain products. This will provide you with key nutrients in amounts that help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.

4) It is best not to drink alcohol.

Research has shown that drinking any alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, the American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than 1 alcoholic drink on any given day. A drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

5) Think carefully about using hormone replacement therapy.

Studies show that HRT using a combination of estrogen and progestin increases the risk of breast cancer. This combination can also lead to increased breast density making it harder to find breast cancer on mammogram.

Talk with your doctor about all the options to control your menopause symptoms, including the risks and benefits of each. If you decide to try HRT, it is best to use it at the lowest dose that works for you and for as short a time as possible.

The Bottom Line

Breast cancer is a scary disease. The good news is that detection and treatment of breast cancer has improved over the past decade. The bad news is that treatment is expensive, and the side effects can be brutal.

There are lots of options for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer, but which one(s) should you choose?

  • Strangelove and his friends are only too happy to recommend their favorite potion, food, or diet.
  • There are long lists of foods you should avoid if you want to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • There are also lists of harmful chemicals in cleaners and other household products that you should avoid.

It can become confusing. It can become overwhelming. It would be easy to just throw up your hands and say, “I give up. I don’t know what to do.”

You may be thinking, “Why doesn’t someone simplify things by identifying the top few lifestyle changes that are most effective for reducing my risk of developing breast cancer?”

It turns out someone has. Today I will share two recent studies that have identified the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and I have ranked them from 1 to 6 in order of effectiveness in the article above.

For more details about these studies, my ranking of the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and the American Cancer Society recommendations, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Have A Healthy Thanksgiving

The Holidays Don’t Have To Be Unhealthy

Thanksgiving TurkeyI realize that in this strangest of years many of us won’t be heading “through the woods and over the hills to grandmother’s house” this year. However, we will probably be gathering with a few friends and family. So, it is time for my annual reminder that we can have a healthy Thanksgiving this year.

While “Healthy Thanksgiving” doesn’t quite have the appeal of the more familiar “Happy Thanksgiving” greeting, I used it here to make the point that Thanksgiving dinner (and many other holiday meals) doesn’t have to be an unhealthy affair.
After all, there is a lot to like about the ingredients in Thanksgiving dinner.  Turkey can be a healthy, low- fat meat, if prepared correctly.  Sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash and pumpkin are all loaded with vitamin A and other important nutrients.  And cranberries are a nutrition powerhouse.

Have A Healthy Thanksgiving

Healthy Thanksgiving DinnerHere are some tips to make your Thanksgiving meal one that contributes to your health:

1) Skip the basting.  Choose a plain bird and cook in a bag to seal in the moisture.  Remove the skin before serving.

2) Refrigerate the turkey juices and skim off the hardened fat before making gravy and use a gravy cup that pours from the bottom to minimize fat.

3) Use ingredients like whole wheat bread, vegetables, fruits (cranberries, raisins, dates or apples), nuts and your favorite spices for the stuffing and bake it in the oven rather than in the turkey.

4) Serve your sweet potatoes or yams baked rather than candied and let your guests add butter and nutmeg to taste.

5) Use skim milk or buttermilk rather than whole milk and skip the butter for your mashed potatoes.

6) Give your meal gourmet appeal by cooking your green vegetables with garlic, nuts and herbs rather than creamy or fat-laden sauces.

7) Don’t serve the meal on your largest plates. By using smaller plates, you ensure smaller portion size and even that second helping isn’t quite so damaging.

8) Consider something like a cranberry, walnut, Greek yogurt parfait for dessert. However, if everyone is expecting grandma’s chocolate pound cake recipe, use small dessert dishes. Of course, you can also experiment with using less fat or sugar when you make the cake.

9) Use a low calorie, plant-based protein shake for one or more meals the day before and/or after Thanksgiving so that your total fat, cholesterol, and caloric intake over the three-day period is not excessive.

By now you have the idea.  There are lots of little things that you can do to make your Thanksgiving dinner one that your waist and your heart will thank you for. Bon Appetit and have a Happy, Healthy Thanksgiving!

The Bottom Line

If you make healthy food choices and choose your portion sizes wisely, you can make this a Healthy Thanksgiving as well as a Happy Thanksgiving.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Can You Live Healthier, Longer?

Ever since Ponce de Leon led an expedition to the Florida coast in 1513, we have been searching for the mythical “Fountain Of Youth”. What does that myth mean?

Supposedly, just by immersing yourself in that fountain you would be made younger. You would experience all the exuberance and health you enjoyed when you were young. There have been many snake oil remedies over the years that have promised that. They were all frauds.

But what if you had it in your power to live longer and to retain your youthful health for most of those extra years. The ability to live healthier longer is something that scientists call “healthspan”. But you can think of it as your personal “Fountain Of Youth”.

Where are we as a nation? Americans ranked 53rd in the world for life expectancy. We have the life expectancy of a third-world country. We are in sore need of a “Fountain Of Youth”.

That is why I decided to share two recent studies from the prestigious Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with you today.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyThese studies started by combining the data from two major clinical trials:

  • The Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2014.
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2014.

These two clinical trials enrolled 78,865 women and 42,354 men and followed them for an average of 34 years. During this time there were 42,167 deaths. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. Furthermore, the design of these clinical trials was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 34 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The questionnaires also captured information on medicines taken and lifestyle characteristics such as body weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
  • For analysis of diet quality, the investigators use something called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index”. [The original Healthy Eating Index was developed about 10 years ago based on the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. Those guidelines have since been updated, and the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index” is based on the updated guidelines.] You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index below, so you can see what is involved.
  • Finally, the investigators included five lifestyle-related factors – diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and BMI (a measure of obesity) – in their estimation of a healthy lifestyle. Based on the best available evidence, they defined “low-risk” in each of these categories. Study participants were assigned 1 point for each low-risk category they achieved. Simply put, if they were low risk in all 5 categories, they received a score of 5. If they were low risk in none of the categories, they received a score of 0.
  • Low risk for each of these categories was defined as follows:
    • Low risk for a healthy diet was defined as those who scored in the top 40% in the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
    • Low risk for smoking was defined as never smoking.
    • Low risk for physical activity was defined as 30 minutes/day of moderate or vigorous activities.
    • Low risk for alcohol was defined as 0.5-1 drinks/day for women and 0.5-2 drinks/day for men.
    • Low risk for weight was defined as a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2).

Can You Live Healthier Longer?

Older Couple Running Along BeachThe investigators compared participants who scored as low risk in all 5 categories with participants who scored as low risk in 0 categories (which would be typical for many Americans). For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to people who scored as low risk in 5 categories as having a “healthy lifestyle” and those who scored as low risk in 0 categories as having an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

The results of the first study were:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy of 93 versus 79).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy was 87 versus 75).
  • It was not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors of the study concluded: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults. Our findings suggest that the gap in life expectancy between the US and other developed countries could be narrowed by improving lifestyle factors.”

The results of the second study were:

  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 85 years versus 74 years).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 81 years versus 73 years).
  • Again, disease-free life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors concluded: “Adherence to a healthy lifestyle at mid-life [They started their analysis at age 50] is associated with a longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Questioning ManI posed the question at the beginning of this article, “Can you improve your healthspan?” These two studies showed that you can improve both your life expectancy and your disease-free life expectancy. So, the answer to the original question appears to be, “Yes, you can improve your healthspan. You can create your personal “Fountain of Youth.”

However, as a nation we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The percentage of US adults adhering to a healthy lifestyle has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to 8% in 2001-2006.

The clinical trials that these studies drew their data from were very well designed, so these are strong studies. However, like all scientific studies, they have some weaknesses, namely:

  • They looked at the association of a healthy lifestyle with life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy. Like all association studies, they cannot prove cause and effect.
  • The clinical trials they drew their data with included mostly Caucasian health professionals. The results may differ with different ethnic groups.
  • These studies did not look at the effect of a healthy lifestyle on the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, other studies have shown that people who were low risk for each of the 5 lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) individually have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.

Finally, I know you have some questions, and I have answers.

Question: What about supplementation? Will it also improve my healthspan?

Answer: When the investigators analyzed the data, they found that those with the healthiest lifestyles were also more likely to be taking a multivitamin. So, they attempted to statistically eliminate any effect of supplement use on the outcomes. That means these studies cannot answer that question.

However, if you calculate your Alternate Healthy Eating Index below, you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

Question: I cannot imagine myself reaching perfection in all 5 lifestyle categories? Should I even try to achieve low risk in one or two categories?

Answer: The good news is that there was a linear increase in both life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy as people went from low-risk in one category to low-risk in all 5 categories. I would encourage you to try and achieve low risk status in as many categories as possible, but very few of us, including me, achieve perfection in all 5 categories.

Question: I am past 50 already. Is it too late for me to improve my healthspan?

Answer: Diet and some of the other lifestyle behaviors were remarkably constant over 34 years in both the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study. That means that the lifespan and healthspan benefits reported in these studies probably resulted from adhering to a healthy lifestyle for most of their adult years.

However, it is never too late to start improving your lifestyle. You may not achieve the full benefits described in these studies, but you still can add years and disease-free years to your life.

How To Calculate Your Alternative Healthy Eating Index

You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index score by simply adding up the points you score for each food category below.

Vegetables

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = 1 cup green leafy vegetables or ½ cup for all other vegetables.

Do not count white potatoes or processed vegetables like French fries or kale chips.

Fruits

Count 2½ points for each serving you eat per day (up to 4 servings).

One serving = 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries.

          (do not count fruit juice or fruit incorporated into desserts or pastries). 

Whole Grains

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = ½ cup whole-grain rice, bulgur and other whole grains, cereal, and pasta or 1 slice of bread.

(For processed foods like pasta and bread, the label must say 100% whole grain).

Sugary Drinks and Fruit Juice

Count 10 points if you drink 0 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

One serving = 8 oz. fruit juice, sugary soda, sweetened tea, coffee drink, energy drink, or sports drink.

Nuts, Seeds and Beans

Count 10 points if you eat 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

One serving = 1 oz. nuts or seeds, 1 Tbs. peanut butter, ½ cup beans, 3½ oz. tofu.

Red and Processed Meat

Count 10 points if you eat 0 servings per week.

Count 7 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 3 points for 3 servings per week (1 serving per day).

Count 0 points for ≥1½ servings per day.

One serving = 1½ oz. processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat)

          Or 4 oz. red meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, lamb chops, etc.)

Seafood

Count 10 points if you eat 2 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 1 serving per week.

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

1 serving = 4 oz.

Now that you have your total, the scoring system is:

  • 41 or higher is excellent
  • 37-40 is good
  • 33-36 is average (remember that it is average to be sick in this country)
  • 28-32 is below average
  • Below 28 is poor

Finally, for the purposes of these two studies, a score of 37 or higher was considered low risk.

The Bottom Line

Two recent studies have developed a healthy lifestyle score based on diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use. When they compared the effect of lifestyle on both lifespan (life expectancy) and healthspan (disease-free life expectancy), they reported:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • It is not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Lifespan and healthspan increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) achieved.
  • These studies did not evaluate whether supplement use also affects healthspan.
    • However, if you calculate your diet with the Alternate Healthy Eating Index they use (see above), you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

For more details, including how to calculate whether you are low risk in each of the 5 lifestyle categories, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

In Defense Of FoodRecently, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Yes, I know the book has been around for a long time. Normally I read the scientific literature rather than popular health books. However, in the past few weeks I have had a lot more time to read books, so I decided to read this one.

Some of the things he says are “off the wall”. As he readily admits, he isn’t a scientist or a medical doctor. However, a lot of what he says is “right on”. He echoes many of the things I have been talking about for years. But he does a masterful job of pulling everything together into a framework he calls “nutritionism”.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you read his book.

I will briefly summarize his discussion of nutritionism below. I will also share some scientific support for what he is saying. Finally, I will close by sharing what the Bible says on the subject.

What Is Nutritionism?

Low Fat LabelSimply put, nutritionism is the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them. I use the term “belief” purposely. As Michael Pollan puts it: “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, nutritionism is not a scientific subject, but an ideology.”

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”.

As he points out, that leads to debacles like the creation of margarine as a substitute for butter. Of course, everyone reading this article knows that we subsequently found out that the trans fat in margarine was worse for us than the saturated fat in butter. He offers many other examples like this.

He also points out that the nutritionism concept has given free rein to the food industry to replace whole foods with processed foods that are cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low-fat, low-carb, or high in fiber, omega-3s, etc. He says that these foods are seldom healthier than the foods they replace. I agree.

Finally, he points out that the scientific support for the classification of individual ingredients or foods as “good” or “bad” is weak. That’s because when scientists design a study that removes a chemical constituent or a food from the diet, they have to replace it with something. And what they replace it with determines the outcome of the study. I give some examples of this in the next section.

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

  • The effect of an individual nutrient or chemical constituent on your health depends on the food it is found in. Forget the fancy nutrition labels. Whole foods are almost always healthier than processed foods.
  • The effect of a food or food constituent on your health also depends on your overall diet. We should be thinking about healthy diets rather than the latest “magical” or “forbidden” food.

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Question MarkNow, let’s get to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” If we are talking about whole foods, the short answer is “None”. As I said in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

For example, if we are talking about plant foods, each plant food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • Has a unique blend of phytonutrients.
  • Has a unique blend of fiber.
  • Supports the growth of a unique combination of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Dr Strangelove and his friends are telling you to eliminate whole grains, fruits, and legumes (beans) from your diet. Recent studies suggest that might not be a good idea. Here is one example.

If we are talking about animal foods, each animal food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • May have unique components that are important for our health. [Note: This is an active area of research. Theories have been proposed for which components in animal foods may be important for our health, but they have not been confirmed.]
  • Vegan purists will tell you that you have no need for meat and dairy foods. Recent studies suggest otherwise. Here is one example.

With that as background, let’s turn our attention to nutritionism and look at some of science behind claims that certain food components are either good for us or bad for us.

Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is the poster child for nutritionism.lowfat

First, we were told by the American Heart Association and other health organizations that saturated fat was bad for us. Recently Dr. Strangelove and his friends are telling us that saturated fat is good for us. Instead of limiting saturated fat, we should be limiting carbs by cutting out fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Both cite clinical studies to support their claims. How can this be?

Perhaps a little history is in order. When the American Heart Association recommended that we decrease intake of saturated fat, they were envisioning that we would replace it with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the context of a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. That never happened.

Big Food quickly realized that if the American public were to follow the AHA guidelines, it would be disastrous for their bottom line. So, they sprang into action. They mixed sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to create highly processed, low fat “foods”. Then they told the American public, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat alternatives.”

This is the essence of what Michael Pollan refers to as nutritionism. By marketing their fake foods as low fat Big Food created the halo of health. In fact, Big Food’s fake foods were less healthy than the foods they replaced. Americans got fatter and sicker.

Now let’s look at the conflicting claims that saturated fat is bad for us or good for us. How can clinical studies disagree on such an important question? The answer is simple. It depends on what you replace it with. You need to consider saturated fat intake in the context of the overall diet.

I discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me summarize it briefly here. The American Heart Association tells us that replacing half of the saturated fat in a typical American diet with:

  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), decreases heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), decreases heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), decreases heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Unsaturated fats in the context of a Mediterranean diet, decreases heart disease risk by 45%.

My advice: Saturated fat is neither good for you nor bad for you. A little bit of saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet is fine. A lot of saturated fat in the context of an unhealthy diet is problematic.

fatty steakRed Meat. Is red meat bad for you? Like saturated fat, it depends on the amount of red meat and the overall diet. I covered this in detail in “Slaying The Food Myths”, but let me summarize briefly here:

According to the World Health Organization, red meat is a probable carcinogen. If we look at the postulated mechanisms by which it causes cancer, they can be mostly neutralized by components of various plant foods.

My advice: An 8-ounce steak with fries and a soda is probably bad for you. Three ounces of that same steak in a green salad or stir fry may be good for you.

I should make one other point while I am on the topic. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling you that grass-fed beef is better for you than conventionally raised beef. Once again, that is nutritionism.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and high in omega-3s than conventionally raised beef. That may be better for your heart, but it has no effect on the cancer-causing potential of red meat. It doesn’t give the license to eat 8-ounce steaks on a regular basis. You still want to aim for 3-ounces of that grass-fed beef in a green salad or stir fry. 

High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This one seems to be on everyone’s “naughty list”. You are being told to read labels, and if the food has high-fructose corn syrup on the label, put it back on the shelf. But is that good advice?

It turns out that all the studies on the bad effects of high-fructose corn syrup have been done with sodas and highly processed foods. This should be your first clue.

Of course, as soon as high-fructose corn syrup gained its “bad” reputation, Big Food started replacing it with Sugar Comparisons“heathier” sugars. Does that make those foods healthier?

The answer is a clear “No”. Both chemically and biologically, high-fructose corn syrup is identical to sucrose (table sugar), honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, or grape juice concentrate. Agave sugar is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. This is your second clue.

Substituting these sugars for high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t turn sodas and processed foods into health foods. This is nutritionism at its worst.

My advice: Forget reading the label. Forget trying to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid sodas and processed foods instead.

Sugar. Once the public started to realize that natural sugars in processed foods were just as bad for us as high-fructose corn syrup, sugars became “bad”. We were told to avoid all foods containing sugar in any form. In fact, we were told we needed to become “label detectives” and recognize all the deceptive ways that sugar could be hidden on the label.

Apple With Nutrition LabelI have discussed this in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

Let me just summarize that article with one quote, “It’s not the sugar. It’s the food. There is the same amount and same types of sugar in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple. Sodas are bad for you, and apples are good for you.” If you are wondering why that is, I have covered it in another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

Before leaving this subject, I should mention that nutritionism has risen its ugly head here as well. Big Food has struck again. They have replaced sugar with a variety of artificial sweeteners.

Once again, nutritionism has failed. Those artificially sweetened sodas and processed foods are no healthier and no more likely to help you keep the weight off than the sugar-sweetened foods they replace. I have covered the science behind that statement in several previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is one example.

My advice: Forget about sugar phobia. You don’t need to become a label detective. Just avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet processed foods. Get your sugar in its natural form in fruits and other whole foods.

low carb dietCarbs. Dr. Strangelove and his friends are now telling you that you need to avoid all carbs. That is pure nutritionism. Carbs are neither good nor bad. It depends on the type of carb and what you replace it with.

Once again, clinical studies have given conflicting outcomes. Each side of the carbohydrate debate can provide clinical studies to support their position. How can that be? The answer is simple. It depends on what assumptions went into the design of the clinical studies. I have written several articles on this topic in “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me give you one example here.

In this example, I looked at two major studies. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study included data from 135,000 participants in 18 countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased. The low-carb enthusiasts were doing a victory dance.

However, it was followed by a second, even larger study. The ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities) study included 432,000 participants from even more countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate decreased to about 40%. Then a curious thing happened. As the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased further, the death rate increased.

How can you explain this discrepancy? When you examine the PURE study:

  • The % carbohydrate only ranged from 70% to 40%.
  • The data for the PURE study was obtained primarily with third world countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • In those countries, it is primarily the well to do that can afford sodas, processed foods, and meat.
    • The poor subsist on what they can grow and inexpensive staples like beans and rice.
  • Simply put, in the PURE study, the type of carbohydrate changed as well as the amount of carbohydrate.
    • At the highest carbohydrate intakes, a significant percentage of the carbohydrate came from sugar and refined grains.
    • At the lowest carbohydrate intakes, most of the carbohydrate intake came from beans, whole grains, and whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow.

When you examine the ARIC study:how much carbohydrates should we eat aric

  • The % carbohydrate ranged from 70% to 20%.
  • The ARIC study added in data from the US and European countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • Low carb diets like Atkins and Keto are popular in these countries. And those are the diets that fall into the 20-40% carbohydrate range.
    • Most people can afford diets that contain a lot of meat in those countries.
  • Simply put, at the lower end of the scale in the ARIC study, people were eating diets rich in meats and saturated fats and eliminating healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits, whole grains and legumes.

My advice: The lesson here is to avoid simplistic nutritionism thinking and focus on diets rather than on foods. When you do that it is clear that carbs aren’t bad for you, it’s unhealthy carbs that are bad for you.

Which Foods Should I Avoid? By now the answer to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” is clear. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).

What Does This Mean To You?

Questioning ManNow that we are clear on which foods you should avoid, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Let’s ask, “Which foods should you include in your diet?

As I said at the beginning of this article, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. We should consider whole foods from all 5 food groups as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

What Does The Bible Say?

Let me start this section by saying that I rely on the Bible for spiritual guidance rather than nutritional guidance. However, as part of our church’s Bible reading plan, I was reading 1 Timothy. A passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5 leapt out at me. It reinforces the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They…order people to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I have discussed the concept of “nutritionism” introduced in Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense Of Food”. He defines nutritionism as the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them.

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”. He points out that when we accept these simplistic labels, we often end up creating foods and diets that are less healthy than the ones we were trying to replace.

At the beginning of the article, I asked the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” I then looked at several foods or food groups we have told to avoid, including saturated fats, red meat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs. When you look at the science behind these recommendations from the lens of nutritionism, you come to two conclusions:

  • We should avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).
  • Whole foods from all 5 food groups should be considered as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

For more details and a bible verse that supports the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor