Death... it’s a lifestyle choice!
Death... it’s a lifestyle choice!By Michael Greger MD FACLM
Dr Michael Greger is a physician, author and internationally recognised speaker on nutrition, food safety and public health issues. He runs the popular website NutritionFacts.org, a non-profit, science-based public service. He introduces his superb new book How Not to Die
There may be no such thing as dying from old age as a recent study revealed. It looked at more than 42,000 autopsies and found that not a single centenarian died of old age, they died from a specific disease, usually heart disease. Most deaths in the US are preventable – and the UK too for that matter.
‘After following more than 60,000 people for more than a dozen years, University of Oxford researchers found that those who consume a plant-based diet are less likely to develop all forms of cancer combined. The greatest protection appeared to be against blood cancers. The incidence of leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma is nearly half that of those eating meat.’
The main cause of death and disability is diet so you would think that this would be the primary thing taught at medical school. In fact, only a quarter of medical schools in the US offer a single course in nutrition – and the numbers are on a downwards trajectory. One study found that people on the street sometimes know more about basic nutrition than their doctors and yet most people consider their doctors to be ‘very credible’ sources of nutritional information. Even back in 1903, Thomas Edison predicted that doctors of the future would give no medicine but would ‘instruct patients in the care of the human frame in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease’.
The Mayo Clinic estimates that 70 per cent of Americans take at least one prescription drug and yet they’re not living that much longer – people in Slovenia have a better life expectancy. And it may be getting worse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a special report saying that the youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly shorter lives than their parents. Humankind has gone through different ages, the current one being the Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases. In 1990, the most years of healthy life were lost to under nutrition but now the burden comes from over nutrition in a near universal shift towards a diet dominated by animal-sourced and processed foods – meat, dairy, eggs, oil, soda, sugar and refined grains.
A dietary quality index was developed that reflects the percentage of calories people derive from these types of food and the percentage from unprocessed plant foods – the higher the score the healthier. The standard American diet rates 11 out of 100!
We eat almost as if the future doesn’t matter. The American Heart Association has its ‘Simple 7’ recommendations for avoiding heart disease and only one person out of nearly 2,000 hit all seven. The truth is that adhering to just three simple lifestyle factors – not smoking, half an hour’s exercise a day and eating healthier (more fruit, veg and wholegrains and less meat) can help prevent some 78 per cent of chronic disease risk. Maybe it’s time to stop blaming genetics and focus on the 70 per cent plus that’s under our control.
Does this translate into living longer? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that even paler versions of these three recommendations could cut the risk from premature death by 82 per cent. This drop in health risk was seen as equivalent to turning back the clock to your being 14 years younger. Telomeres are the caps on the 46 strands of DNA that are coiled into chromosomes in each of our cells. They can be seen as our life’s fuse and they start shortening as soon as we’re born – when they’re gone, we’re gone! If you can slow down this process then maybe you can slow the ageing process and live longer.
Work by Dr Dean Ornish and Nobel Prize winner Dr Elizabeth Blackburn found that three months of plant-based nutrition and other healthy changes could boost telomerase activity. A five-year follow up found that in the control group that didn’t change its diet, telomeres had, as expected, shrunk. But in the healthier group, not only had they not shrunk, they had grown. There are 15 leading causes of death (I devote a chapter to each one in my book) and there are prescription drugs for all of them but there is only one unifying diet that can help prevent, arrest or even reverse each of these killers and it’s the same diet for all of them – one that centres on unprocessed plant foods.
As a physician, I was trained to treat the consequences of diseases, not the root cause and it is treating the cause that is cheaper and more effective but as no one profits from advice and lifestyle medicine, it is not a part of medical practice. We’re a long way from Thomas Edison and his predictions but my hope is that this book will help you to understand that death and disability are more preventable than inevitable. The primary reason that diseases tend to run in families is that diets tend to run in families.
Research with identical twins has shown that if separated at birth, each will get different diseases depending on how they live their lives. Just because you’re born with bad genes doesn’t mean you can’t turn them off. As you’ll see in the breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease chapters, even if born with high-risk genes you can still have tremendous control over your medical destiny.
The book is divided into two parts – the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. For example, in part 1 I’ll explain why beans and greens are among the healthiest foods on earth; in part 2 I’ll show how best to eat them – cooked, canned, fresh or frozen. I’ll keep working on trying to change the system but you don’t have to wait. You can start now by following my recommendations. Eating healthier is easier than you think, it’s inexpensive and it might just save your life.