In preparing this special Aging Well issue, we wanted to do a story not on the illnesses associated with aging, but with how to prevent those illnesses: heart disease, dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis and any number of cancers. We braced for a story exploring the leading edge of genomics, customized pharmaceuticals, advanced multidimensional imaging and, we figured, something or other about nanotechnology.
Alas, we were disappointed -- or disabused. A majority of the most conclusive research studies we found on prevention of age-related disease kept pointing to the same things: Get lots of exercise and enough sleep. Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains; go easy on the fat, sugar and junk. Don't smoke at all, and don't drink alcohol a lot. Relax.
The Facelift Diaries: Jill Scharff, M.D. and Jaedene Levy, MBA, MSW, will be online at Noon ET to discuss the misconceptions and consequences of plastic surgery when it comes to facelifts.
The Facelift Diaries (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
Fit for the Ages (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
Home at Sea (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
While drugs, supplements and other purported "anti-aging" magic bullets get a lot of attention, the power of simple lifestyle change is well-known in the disease prevention community.
"When you compare people with poor habits to people that have very good habits, you see remarkable differences in how long they live and remarkable differences in their functional status," said David Buchner, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's physical activity and health branch. "So it would be common to see 40 to 50 percent differences [in life spans and function] between people that have the poorest habits and people that have the best habits."
"Prevention" of illness isn't really possible, of course. Research shows that certain things you eat or do can substantially reduce your risk of getting, say, Alzheimer's or heart disease. But many other factors influence whether you get sick or not: Family history. Environmental exposure to things we can't avoid or haven't identified. Subtle relationships between genes and environment. Obscure biological processes not yet discovered. In many cases these things are the most powerful determinants of illness. Trouble is, you can't do anything about them.
Until we understand the biology of disease better, all we know for sure is that a very short list of behaviors appears to reduce -- sometimes substantially -- the likelihood that you'll get sick and die too early. As the following report shows, we're basically talking about the eat-right/exercise-often/live-clean stuff you've been trying to deny, ignore or avoid for most of your life.
Unlike some prevention methods whose research is more ambivalent, or which carry risks themselves -- taking aspirin to prevent heart attacks, for example, or drinking wine to reduce heart disease -- the methods we cite are well-documented, almost completely harmless and widely applicable.
As a helpful reminder, we detail some of the most powerful recent findings connecting lifestyle habits and reduced disease risk. We hope it inspires you, or at least usefully annoys you. Until that nanotechnology-enhanced neuroimaging device leads to personalized pharmaceuticals that turn off the aging gene, this is all we've got.
1. BE ACTIVE.
Walking and Dementia A September study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that elderly women who walked at least six hours a week or did similar activities had a 20 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment than their least active peers. Another September JAMA study found that older men who walked less than a quarter-mile per day had almost twice the risk of developing dementia as men who walked at least two miles per day.
Exercise and Diabetes The Diabetes Prevention Program clinical trial published in 2002 found that people at high risk for type 2 diabetes cut their risk by almost 60 percent by exercising (about 30 minutes a day) and losing weight (5 to 7 percent of body weight).
Exercise and Osteoporosis Aerobics, walking, weight-bearing or resistance exercises, particularly if they're performed for more than two years, can improve osteoporosis and reduce fractures in women after menopause, according to a 2004 review of literature by the Cochrane Library. Endurance exercise programs lasting six months to two years can prevent or reverse bone loss in postmenopausal women by almost 1 percent per year, according to a 1999 analysis of published studies appearing in Osteoporosis International.
Exercise and Breast Cancer According to a 2003 JAMA report based on the Women's Health Initiative study, increased physical activity for a few hours per week, regardless of intensity, is associated with lowered risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.
Exercise and Osteoarthritis A 2001 review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that using exercise to strengthen the quadriceps muscles by 20 to 25 percent led to a 20 to 30 percent decrease in the risk of osteoarthritis of the knee.