Do Optimists Live Longer?

What Does This Study Mean For You? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

You have probably heard the statement that optimists live longer before. In fact, you have probably heard so many times you assume it must be true. But is it a myth or is it the truth?

This question is important because it can affect how people feel about themselves. If you are a natural optimist, statements like this support your feeling of self-worth. But if you are naturally pessimistic, statements like this provide one more reason to feel bad about yourself.

For example, a recent article on the topic in WebMD starts with the statement, “Want to live longer? You might want to try improving your outlook on life.” I am mostly optimistic, so I find this statement to be positive and encouraging.

But I am not sure I would feel about this statement if I were pessimistic or depressed and had tried for years to be more optimistic.

Because of this it is important to ask, “How good is the evidence supporting this claim?”

There are several published studies supporting this claim (For example). However,

  • Most of these studies have been performed with white, high-income participants. It is not clear whether these same results would apply to other racial and ethnic groups.
  • There is also the “chicken versus egg” conundrum. The studies claiming that optimists live longer are all association studies. Simply put, that means optimism is associated with longevity, but does not prove cause and effect. That is important because:
    • Some studies show that both a healthy diet and exercise improve mood.
    • Other studies show that optimists tend to take better care of themselves, and that includes both diet and exercise.
    • So, it’s hard to know which comes first – a healthy lifestyle, which creates optimism, or optimism, which creates a healthy lifestyle.
  • Because of this “chicken versus egg” conundrum, it is not clear whether it is a healthy lifestyle or optimism that is the primary cause of greater longevity.

The study (HK Koga et al, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 70: 2793-2804, 2022)) I will review today was designed to answer both questions. Specifically, this study was designed to ask:

  • Is higher optimism associated with a longer lifespan and exceptional longevity across diverse racial and ethnic groups?
  • To what extent do lifestyle factors influence this association?

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe data for this study was obtained from the Women’s Health Initiative which enrolled 161,808 postmenopausal women of diverse racial and ethnic groups from 40 medical centers within the United States between 1993 and 1998. The women were aged 50-79 (average = 63.5) at enrollment and were followed for an average of 26 years.

Optimism was assessed at enrollment into the program using the 6-item Life Orientation Test Revised. For each item on the questionnaire, participants were asked to report the degree they agreed with each statement on a scale of 1 = “strongly agree” to 5 = “strongly disagree”. Their responses were summed to create scores ranging from 6 to 30, with 30 being the highest optimism rating.

Lifestyle was assessed on a questionnaire measuring diet quality, physical activity, BMI (a measure of obesity), smoking status, and alcohol consumption. If participants met predefined “healthy standards in each of these categories, they were given a score of 1. Otherwise, their score was 0. Scores from each category were summed to create a composite lifestyle score ranging from 0 (least healthy) to 5 (most healthy).

Longevity was based on survival compared to national averages using the National Death Index (Yes, “Big Brother” is watching you even when you die) to identify and confirm deaths. Deaths of participants were monitored through March 1, 2019. Exceptional longevity was defined as survival to age 90 or older. Overall, 64,301 women (40.3%) died over the 26 years of follow-up.

Finally, women who died within the first 2 years of follow-up were excluded from the data analysis “to mitigate concerns that health status might affect the reporting or experience of optimism levels.” In plain English, people who are within 2 years of dying are often very sick and feel lousy. Even the most optimistic individuals find it hard to maintain an optimistic outlook in those circumstances. This left 159,255 women in the database.

Do Optimists Live Longer?

When comparing women in the highest to women in the lowest quartile of optimism:

  • Longevity was increased by 5.4%, which corresponds to an additional 4.4 years. When this was broken down by race and ethnicity, longevity was increased by:
    • 1% for Non-Hispanic White women.
    • 6% for Black women.
    • 4% for Hispanic women.
    • 5% for Asian women. However, this may have been an underestimate because of the small sample size of this population in the Women’s Health Initiative database.
  • Exceptional longevity (survival ≥ 90 years) was increased 10%.

When the authors used a complex statistical method to assess the contribution of lifestyle to the increase in longevity, they found:

  • Lifestyle contributed to 24% of the increased longevity. When this was broken down by race and ethnicity, lifestyle contributed:
    • 25% for Non-Hispanic White women.
    • 10% for Black women.
    • 24% for Hispanic women.
    • 43% for Asian women.

The authors concluded, “We found that higher levels of optimism were associated with longer lifespan and greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity across racial and ethnic groups, suggesting the health benefits of optimism may hold across these groups.”

“The contribution of lifestyle to these associations was evident but modest.”

“As prior work has demonstrated that optimism is modifiable, it may be a novel target for interventions that aim to extend lifespan across diverse racial and ethnic groups.”

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of This Study?

strengths and weaknessesThis is not the first study to suggest that optimists live longer. But it is the best study to date because:

  • It was larger (159,255 participants) than most previous studies.
  • It followed the participants far longer (26 years) than previous studies.
  • It included a more racially and ethnically diverse group of participants than previous studies.
  • It addressed the “elephant in the room” for studies of this type, namely that optimists tend to actively seek a healthier lifestyle, so the “benefits” of optimism could be due to a healthy lifestyle rather than a state of mind. The study employed statistics to estimate that a healthy lifestyle contributed around 25% to the longevity experienced by optimists.

However, the study did have some weaknesses. In my opinion, the most important weaknesses were:

  • Optimism and lifestyle were only assessed at the beginning of the study. No effort was made to determine whether either of these important variables changed during the 26-year study.
  • The relative influence of lifestyle and optimism on longevity was based on a complex statistical analysis. As Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Simply put, statistics can sometimes give misleading answers. I would like to see this very important part of the study confirmed using a different method of analysis.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanAs I shared above, I have some misgivings about this and other studies claiming that optimists live longer. But let’s assume this claim is true. What does that mean for you?

A 5.4% increase in lifespan might not sound like much, but it added 4.4 years to the lives of the women in the study. What would you do with an extra 4.4 years?

And, as the authors of the study pointed out, that’s equivalent to the gain in lifespan for adults engaged in a regular exercise program. Are those benefits addible? We don’t know, but it is possible that an optimist who exercised regularly and had a healthy diet might experience more than a 4-year gain in lifespan.

The authors said, “Although optimism is partly heritable (23-32%), experimental research has demonstrated that optimism is modifiable…”

Let me share a few things that have helped me maintain a more optimistic outlook:

  • Affirmations and visualizations of a positive future.
  • I start my daily prayers by listing the things I am grateful for. For others, a gratitude journal works equally well.
  • Accept positive input. You can accept compliments with humility by simply thanking the person for the compliment. But in your mind, use the compliment to overcome your inner doubts of self-worth.
  • Question negative input. Ask if each critic is the kind of person you want to become. If so, ask if what they said is really true.
  • Create a support network. These are family and friends who will support you when you need it and will give you a gentle kick in the …. when you need that.
  • Trust in a higher power. I know from experience that it is only God who can give me the “peace that passes all understanding” in my most difficult circumstances. And while I am Christian, I think this is a cornerstone of most religions.

Finally, I know that many people are predisposed to depression and pessimism, so I don’t want to be like the author of the WebMD article and tell you, “Want to live longer? You might want to try improving your outlook on life.”

We know that a healthy lifestyle is associated with longevity. And you don’t have to be an optimist to choose a healthy diet, exercise regularly, avoid smoking and excess alcohol intake, and get regular health check-ups.

We also know these things are associated with a longer healthspan which, simply put, is the number of years you live in good health.

So, whether you are a pessimist or an optimist you can live healthier longer.

The Bottom Line

You have probably heard that optimists live longer, but is it true? In the article above I describe the latest study on this topic. It is better than most previous studies on this topic because:

  • It was larger (159,255 participants) than most previous studies.
  • It followed the participants far longer (26 years) than previous studies.
  • It included a more racially and ethnically diverse group of participants than previous studies.
  • It addressed the “elephant in the room” for studies of this type, namely that optimists tend to actively seek a healthier lifestyle, so the “benefits” of optimism could be due to a healthy lifestyle rather than a state of mind. The study employed statistics to estimate that a healthy lifestyle contributed around 25% to the longevity experienced by optimists.

When the study compared women in the highest to women in the lowest quartile of optimism:

  • Longevity was increased by 5.4%, which corresponds to an additional 4.4 years.
  • Exceptional longevity (survival ≥ 90 years) was increased by 10%.
  • Lifestyle contributed to 24% of the increased longevity.

The authors concluded, “We found that higher levels of optimism were associated with longer lifespan and greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity across racial and ethnic groups, suggesting the health benefits of optimism may hold across these groups.”

“As prior work has demonstrated that optimism is modifiable, it may be a novel target for interventions that aim to extend lifespan across diverse racial and ethnic groups.”

For more details on 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.

______________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

______________________________________________________________________

About The Author 

Dr. Chaney has a BS in Chemistry from Duke University and a PhD in Biochemistry from UCLA. He is Professor Emeritus from the University of North Carolina where he taught biochemistry and nutrition to medical and dental students for 40 years.

Dr. Chaney won numerous teaching awards at UNC, including the Academy of Educators “Excellence in Teaching Lifetime Achievement Award”.

Dr Chaney also ran an active cancer research program at UNC and published over 100 scientific articles and reviews in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, he authored two chapters on nutrition in one of the leading biochemistry text books for medical students.

Since retiring from the University of North Carolina, he has been writing a weekly health blog called “Health Tips From the Professor”. He has also written two best-selling books, “Slaying the Food Myths” and “Slaying the Supplement Myths”. And most recently he has created an online lifestyle change course, “Create Your Personal Health Zone”. For more information visit https://chaneyhealth.com.

For the past 45 years Dr. Chaney and his wife Suzanne have been helping people improve their health holistically through a combination of good diet, exercise, weight control and appropriate supplementation.

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 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 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.

Why Do Most Diets Fail?

How To Lose Weight And Keep It Off

New Year DietTomorrow is the official start of another dieting season. Millions of Americans will be making a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. The top three reasons for these weight loss resolutions are:

1)    Reduce disease risk (73%). After all, we are being told those excess pounds increase our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and just about every other disease known to man.

2)    Improve self-esteem (61%). Some of this may be due to the social stigma associated with obesity, but many people simply want to improve the image they see in the mirror every morning when they get out of the shower.

3)    Boost energy (49%).

Those are all good reasons for losing weight. But before you make your New Year’s resolution to embark on another weight loss journey, you should ask yourself “Do weight loss diets work?” If you look at the statistics, they aren’t very encouraging:

1)    45 million Americans go on a weight loss diet every year.

·       50% go on fad diets.

·       They spend $33 billion on weight loss products.

·       90% regain almost all the weight. That’s called the yo-yo effect.

·       On average, Americans gain 11 pounds on every diet yo-yo.

o   They might as well have thrown that $33 billion to the wind.

2)    228,000 Americans get gastric bypass surgery.

·       80% regain almost all the weight.

o   Their digestion and their health will never be the same.

As if those statistics weren’t bad enough, the obesity epidemic gets worse year after year (see the graphic on the Obesity Epidemicright). Americans keep getting fatter. What we are doing clearly isn’t working.

You are probably saying to yourself: “I know that, but this year I’m going to try a new diet.” As the saying goes “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, but is it realistic to think this time will be different?

Let me share a quote from a book and TV series called “The Weight Of the Nation” by John Hoffman & Dr. Judith Salerno”:

“First we blamed fat – low fat diets didn’t work! Then we blamed carbs, eggs, red meat, dairy, white flour, sugar, juices, sodas, high-fructose corn syrup, & partially hydrogenated fats. One by one, we replaced the evil food du jour…and watched our collective waistlines grow.”

In other words, they are saying it’s not just low-fat diets that don’t work. None of the popular diets work long term. I come across lots of people who tell me the Atkins weight-loss diet works best for them. That would be convincing if they were slender, but they aren’t! They gained it all back and then some. Now that the keto diet has been around for a few years, I am starting to see the same pattern there as well.

Clearly, the problem isn’t losing the weight. Any diet can help you lose weight. The problem is keeping the weight off. Let’s look at why this is.

Why Do Most Diets Fail?

WhyTo understand the answer to this question, let’s start with another quote from “The Weight Of the Nation”: “Our bodies were designed to store fat in times of plenty and retain fat in times of famine”

Essentially, the authors were saying when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, there were times when food was abundant, and times when food was scarce. In order to survive, our bodies had to store energy in its most efficient form when food was abundant and hold on to those energy stores as long as possible when food was scarce.

Fat provides more than twice as many calories per gram as either carbohydrate or protein. Additionally, our ability to store carbohydrate is limited. And we don’t really have protein stores. All the proteins in our body have essential functions. However, our ability to store fat is unlimited. Now you understand why fat is the preferred energy store in times of plenty and our bodies try to hold on to it as long as possible in times of famine.

With that perspective in mind, there are three reasons why most diets fail:

1)    Most dieters are looking for rapid weight loss (at least 2-5 pounds/week). That is a problem because “Our bodies were designed to…retain fat in times of famine”. When we lose weight quickly, our bodies interpret that as famine. Our bodies respond by decreasing our metabolic rate so we can hold on to those fat stores.

The solution to this problem is to set more reasonable weight loss goals. If we keep the rate of weight loss in the 1-2 pound/week range (0.5-1 pounds/week is even better), we can largely avoid this famine response. You should ask yourself, “What’s the rush?” After all, the average American only gains 1-2 pounds/year. Why do we need to get rid of that excess weight in just a few weeks?

2)    Most dieters are looking for significant weight loss (more than 20 pounds). That is a problem because our bodies are designed to retain fat stores, not protein stores. When our bodies sense a famine they burn our protein stores (lean muscle mass) to spare as much of our fat stores as possible. The longer the diet (famine) lasts, the more muscle mass we lose.

That’s a problem because muscle burns calories much faster than fat. The more muscle we lose, the more our metabolic rate decreases. It gets harder and harder to lose weight, and eventually we reach a plateau. Most people get discouraged at that point and go off their diet.

That’s where the other part of the quote from “The Weight Of The Nation” kicks in: “Our bodies are Yo-Yo with Boydesigned to store fat in times of plenty”. Once again, it is fat we store, not protein. Most people never regain the protein stores they lost, so their metabolic rate remains low. They regain most of the weight they lost, and then some. This is the origin of the yo-yo effect.

There are two solutions to this problem:

·       Increase your resistance exercise and your intake of protein with high levels of the essential amino acid leucine. I have covered this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

·       Set more reasonable weight loss goals. It is possible to lose more than 20 pounds without losing muscle mass. We just need to think in terms of reaching those weight loss goals in years rather than in months. Once again, remember it took us years to gain the weight. Why not think in terms of years to lose the weight?

3)    Most dieters think in terms of diets rather than lifestyle change. Diets have an expiration date. Then most people just drift back to “the way they really live”. Lifestyle change, on the other hand, is permanent. Once we change to a healthier lifestyle, we no longer need to focus on weight loss. The weight comes off automatically.

To better understand the power of lifestyle change let’s look at something called “The National Weight Control Registry”.

How To Lose Weight And Keep It Off

Happy woman on scaleRather than focus on the abysmal statistics for long-term weight loss, doctors Rena Hill and James O Wing decided to focus on the characteristic of people who manage to keep their weight off. They founded something called “The National Weight Control Registry” and invited people who were successful at keeping the weight off to participate in their program.

Currently, the National Weight Control Registry is tracking over 10,000 individuals who have lost 30 pounds or more and have kept it off for long periods of time. They use detailed questionnaires and annual follow-up surveys to study the behavioral and psychological characteristics and the strategies of weight loss maintainers.

When you look at how they lost weight, they are a very diverse group:

·       They lost weight on every possible diet – from vegan to keto to just plain crazy.

·       50% lost weight on commercial diet programs. 50% lost weight on their own.

·       Some lost weight quickly. Some lost weight slowly.

When you look at weight maintenance, you realize that the dismal weight maintenance statistics don’t have to apply to you. The good news is:

·       On average, people in The National Weight Control Registry have lost 66 pounds and have kept it off for 5 years or more.

·       12-14% of them have maintained a weight loss of 100 pounds or more for 5 or more years.

·       Even better, once they maintained their weight loss for 2-5 years, it became easy.

They no longer had to battle hunger and a sluggish metabolism. They no longer had to think about the lifestyle changes they were trying to maintain. Their new lifestyle became what they did automatically, without even thinking about it. Their weight loss had become permanent.

By now, you are probably wondering how they do it. Here are the top 7 characteristics of those who are successfulhealthy living at keeping the weight off:

1)    They consumed reduced calorie, low-fat, healthy diets.

2)    They had internalized their eating patterns. It had become how they ate every day without even thinking about it.

3)    They monitored their weight regularly. This allowed them to make adjustments whenever they saw their weight start to creep up.

4)    They ate breakfast on a regular basis.

5)    They got lots of exercise (on average, about 1 hour/day).

6)    They watched less than 10 hours of TV/week. If you were wondering where you would find the time to exercise an hour/day, this is probably your answer.

7)    They were consistent. They had no planned “cheat days”. This doesn’t mean they were purists. They still allowed themselves to eat some of their favorite unhealthy foods on an occasional basis. They just didn’t set aside regular times when they planned to “pig out”.

There was one other interesting observation from this study:

·       Those who used meal replacement shakes as part of their weight loss, focused more on diet and included meal replacement shakes as part of their maintenance program.

·       Those who lost weight on their own, also followed healthy eating habits, but put a bit more emphasis on exercise to keep themselves on track.

·       Both approaches were effective.

The take-home message of the National Weight Control Registry is clear. There is no magic diet that guarantees you will keep the weight off. The “secret” to keeping the weight off is a healthy eating pattern and a healthy lifestyle.

In short, if your resolution is to lose weight next year, don’t focus on the diet you will follow to lose the weight. Instead, focus on the healthy lifestyle you will follow to keep the weight off.

Of course, you will be most successful if the diet you are following to lose weight incorporates the healthy lifestyle you plan to follow to maintain your weight loss.

What Role Do Habits Play In Weight Loss?

Habits-Old-vs-NewFinally, I would like to share a recent study (G Cleo et al, International Journal of Obesity, 43: 374-383, 2019) that puts the whole issue of weight loss and weight maintenance in a different perspective. This study looked at the role that habits play in weight loss.

In short, the study enrolled 130 participants who wanted to lose weight. All the participants were told this was a weight loss study, but none of the participants were given detailed diet and exercise recommendations to follow. The study had a 12-week intervention phase followed by a 12-month follow-up phase. The participants were divided into three groups.

1)    Group 1 received no advice during the intervention phase. This was the control group.

2)    Group 2 focused on breaking old habits. During the intervention phase they were sent daily tests suggesting new habit patterns. These were suggestions like “Drive a different route to work today”. None of the texts had anything to do with diet or lifestyle.

3)    Group 3 focused on creating new healthy habits. They were given a list of 10 healthy habits. During the intervention phase they were asked to log how many of these habits they implemented each day. The 10 healthy habits were:

#1: Keep to a daily meal routine.

#2: Choose reduced fat versions of foods.

#3: Walk off the weight (aim for 10,000 steps/day).

#4: Pack a healthy snack (Choose healthy options such as fruits, nuts, or low-fat yogurt).

#5: Read labels.

#6: Be cautious with your portions.

#7: Break up your sitting time (Stand for 10 minutes every hour).

#8: Think about your drinks (Choose water instead of sodas and fruit juices).

#9: Focus on your food (Slow down. Don’t eat while watching TV).

#10: Don’t forget your 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The results were:

·       People in both habit change groups lost significantly more weight than people in the control group.

·       People in the habit change groups continued to lose weight for 12 months after the intervention ended.

·       Weight loss was essentially identical in the two habit change groups.

The last observation is particularly interesting. Remember that one of the habit change groups was simply focused on breaking old habits, yet people in this group did just as well as people who were taught healthy lifestyle habits. This implies that people already know about healthy lifestyle habits. They just don’t know how to break their old habits. Once they become comfortable breaking old habits, they find it easy to adopt healthier lifestyle habits.

In short, change your habits, change your lifestyle. Change your lifestyle, control your weight.

What Does This Mean For You?

why-do-most-dirts-failI covered a lot of information in this article. Let me sum it up by giving you my top 10 tips for losing weight and keeping it off.

1)    You don’t need to achieve your “ideal weight”. Losing 5-10% of your body weight may be enough.

2)    Ditch diets. Focus on lifestyle change.

3)    Slow and steady wins the day.

4)    Change your habits, change your weight.

5)    Long-term weight loss is possible.

6)    Low-fat, healthy eating patterns are best.

7)    Once you have internalized healthy habits, they become automatic.

8)    If you stick with a healthy lifestyle long enough, keeping the weight off becomes easy.

9)    Focus on all the healthy food choices you have, not what you have to give up. There is a cornucopia of great tasting, healthy foods to choose from.

10)  Never say never. Allow yourself to enjoy your old favorite foods on occasion. Just don’t make it a habit.

The Bottom Line

I cover a lot of information in this article. Let me sum it up by giving you my top 10 tips for losing weight and keeping it off.

1)    You don’t need to achieve your “ideal weight”. Losing 5-10% of your body weight may be enough.

2)    Ditch diets. Focus on lifestyle change.

3)    Slow and steady wins the day.

4)    Change your habits, change your weight.

5)    Long-term weight loss is possible.

6)    Low-fat, healthy eating patterns are best.

7)    Once you have internalized healthy habits, they become automatic.

8)    If you stick with a healthy lifestyle long enough, keeping the weight off becomes easy.

9)    Focus on all the healthy food choices you have, not what you have to give up. There is a cornucopia of great tasting, healthy foods to choose from.

10)  Never say never. Allow yourself to enjoy your old favorite foods on occasion. Just don’t make it a habit.

For more details on how to lose weight and keep it off, read the article above. In fact, if you plan to lose weight in the coming year, you should really read this article first.

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 Alter Your Genetic Destiny?

Disease Is Not Inevitable

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Bad GenesMany people seem to have the attitude that if obesity [or cancer, heart disease or diabetes] runs in their family, it is their destiny. They can’t really do anything about it, so why even try?

Most of us in the field of nutrition have felt for years that nothing could be further from the truth. But our belief was based on individual cases, not on solid science. That is no longer the case.

Recent scientific advances have given us solid proof that it is possible to alter our genetic destiny. A family predisposition to diabetes, for example, no longer dooms us to the same fate.

I’m not talking about something like the discredited Blood Type Diet. I’m talking about real science. Let me start by giving you an overview of the latest scientific advances.

Can Diet Alter Your Genetic Destiny?

The answer to this question is YES, and that answer lies in a relatively new scientific specialty called nutrigenomics – the interaction between nutrition and genetics. There are three ways in which nutrition and genetics interact:

1)     Your genetic makeup can influence your nutrient requirements.

The best characterized example of this is methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) deficiency.  MTHFR deficiency increases the requirement for folic acid and is associated with neural tube defects and other neurological disorders, dementia, colon cancer & leukemia.

In spite of what some blogs and supplement manufacturers would have you believe, supplementation with around 400 IU of folic acid is usually sufficient to overcome the consequences of MTHFR deficiency. 5-methylene tetrahydrofolate (also sold as methyl folate or 5-methyl folate) offers no advantage in absorption, bioavailability or physiological activity (Clinical Pharmacokinetics, 49: 535-548, 2010; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79: 473-478, 2004).

This is just one example. There are hundreds of other genetic variations that influence nutrient requirements – some known and some yet unknown.

2)     A healthy diet can reduce your genetic predisposition for disease.

This perhaps the one that is easiest to understand. For conceptual purposes let us suppose that your genetic makeup were associated with high levels of inflammation. That would predispose you to heart disease, cancer and many other diseases. However, a diet rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients could reduce your risk of those diseases.

This is just a hypothetical example. I’ll give some specific examples in the paragraphs below.

3)     Diet can actually alter your genes.

This is perhaps the most interesting scientific advance in recent years. We used to think that genes couldn’t be changed. What you inherited was what you got.

Now we know that both DNA and the proteins that coat the DNA can be modified, and those modifications alter how those genes are expressed. More importantly, we now know that those modifications can be inherited.

Perhaps the best characterized chemical modification of both DNA and proteins is something called methylation. Methylation influences gene expression and is, in turn, influenced by nutrients in the diet like folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, choline and the amino acid methionine.

Again this is just the “tip of the iceberg”. We are learning more about how diet can alter our genes every day.

Examples Of How Diet Can Alter Genetic Predisposition

Mature Man - Heart Attack Heart Disease

  • Perhaps the most impressive recent study is one that looked at the effect of diet on 20,000 people who had a genetic predisposition to heart disease (PLOS Medicine, October 2011, doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001106).

These people all had a genetic variant 9p21 that causes a 2 fold increased risk of heart attack. The study showed that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and nuts reduced their risk of heart attack to that of the general population.

  • Another study, the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) study (Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004; Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 24: 136, 2008), looked at genetic variations in the haptoglobin gene that influence cardiovascular risk. The haptoglobin 2-2 genotype increases oxidative damage to the arterial wall, which significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

When the authors of this study looked at the effect of vitamin E, they found that it significantly decreased heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths in people with the haptoglobin 2-2 genotype, but not in people with other haptoglobin geneotypes.

  • There was also a study called the ISOHEART study (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82: 1260-1268, 2005; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83: 592-600, 2006) that looked at a particular genetic variation in the estrogen receptor which increases inflammation and decreases levels of HDL. As you might expect, this genotype significantly increases cardiovascular risk.

Soy isoflavones significantly decreased inflammation and increased HDL levels in this population group. But they had no    effect on inflammation or HDL levels in people with other genotypes affecting the estrogen reception.

To put this in perspective, these studies are fundamentally different from other studies you have heard about regarding nutritional interventions and heart disease risks. Those studies were looking at the effect of diet or supplementation in the general population.

These studies are looking at the effect of diet or supplementation in people who were genetically predisposed to heart disease. These studies show that genetic predisposition [to heart disease] does not have to be your destiny. You can change the outcome!

Cancer

  • A healthy diet (characterized by high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grain products and low intakes of refined grain products) compared with the standard American diet (characterized by high intakes of refined grain products, desserts, sweets and processed meats) results in a pattern of gene expression that is associated with lower risk of cancer.  (Nutrition Journal, 2013 12:24).
  • A healthy lifestyle (low fat diet, stress management and exercise) in men with prostate cancer causes downregulation of genes associated with tumor growth (PNAS, 105: 8369-8374).
  • Sulforaphane, a nutrient found in broccoli, turns on genes that suppress cancer.

Diabetes

  • A study reported at the 2013 meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes showed that regular exercise activated genes associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes

Cellular Stress Response

  • A diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables activates the cellular stress response genes that protect us from DNA damage, inflammation and reactive oxygen species (BMC Medicine, 2010 8:54).
  • Resveratrol, a nutrient found in grape skins and red wine, activates genes associated with DNA repair and combating reactive oxygen species while it reduces the activity of genes associated with inflammation, increased blood pressure and cholesterol production.

To put these last three examples (cancer, diabetes and cellular stress response) in perspective, they show that diet and supplementation can alter gene expression – and that those alterations are likely to decrease disease risk.

Obesity

  • Finally, an animal study suggests that maternal obesity may increase the risk of obesity in the offspring by increasing their taste preference for foods with lots of sugar and fats (Endocrinology, 151: 475-464, 2010).

The Bottom Line:

The science of nutrigenomics tells us that diet and genetics interact in some important ways:

1)     Your genetic makeup can influence your requirement for certain nutrients.

    • For example, methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) deficiency increases your requirement for folic acid.
    • Contrary to what many blogs would have you believe, folic acid is just as effective as 5-methylene tetrahydrofolate (also sold as methyl folate or 5-methyl folate) at correcting MTHFR deficiency.

2)     Healthy diet and lifestyle can overcome genetic predisposition to certain diseases. The best established example at present is for people genetically predisposed to heart disease, but preliminary evidence suggests that the risk of other diseases such as diabetes and cancer are altered by your diet.

3)     Diet can actually alter gene expression – for better or worse depending on your diet. Those alterations not only affect your health, but they may affect your children’s health as well.

4)     Nutrigenomics is a young science and many of the individual studies should be considered preliminary. However, the scientific backing is become stronger every day for what many experts in the field have believed for years.

“Your genes do not have to be your destiny. Healthy diet and lifestyle can overcome a genetic predisposition to many diseases.”

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