There have been many advances in medicine over the last 150 years. Better anesthesia, safer blood transfusions, antibiotics that made amazing surgical techniques possible, and in some cases, almost routine. Antibiotics alone have saved millions from otherwise deadly bacterial infections. Hardly a year goes by without another advance in imaging technology, genetics, or new drug therapies. The many advances in medicine have been truly amazing. In developed countries like the United States, diseases like smallpox, typhoid, cholera, and polio are rare enough that many doctors have never seen them except in a textbook. And to imagine, all of these advances in less than 150 years. In part, we can thank Louis Pasteur for a germ theory that set us on the path toward antibiotics, cleaner water, improved sanitation, safer food, and vaccines.
Looking to the future, you may be expecting even more advances, and no doubt, there are amazing advances on the way. Like most, you may be imagining that with so many advances, it’s no wonder people live longer today.
While it’s true that on average people do live about 27 years longer than they did 120 years ago, you shouldn’t get too excited about this statistic if you are past the age of one. For children living around 1900, one in six died before reaching their first year of life, mostly due to infectious diseases. This, of course, significantly shortened the average life span. Today, a person living to age 65 has an average life expectancy of only a few years more than a 65-year-old living in 1900.
With the many incredible medical technologies that we have access to, how can it be that we have made so little progress in extending life expectancy for those that survive childhood? The simple answer is that increasingly people are dying prematurely from the cumulative effects of lifestyle diseases like cancer, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and atherosclerosis. While advances in medicine provide many ways to make these lifestyle diseases more bearable and slightly extend lifespan, technology has yet to produce a cure except in a few limited situations. The best remedy, when it’s not too late, is a lifestyle change. Fortunately, with intensive lifestyle changes, some can still come back swinging in the 9’th inning.
In 1900, atherosclerosis was an almost unheard of disease. Early descriptions of the condition only began to appear in the medical literature in 1910. What was a rare disease then, is now one of the most significant causes of death. A similar observation can be made for dementia, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer. Granted, not all cases of these diseases are attributable to lifestyle. However, lifestyle is the most common cause of death before a person reaches their 80s.
The dilemma is that many common diseases have risen from being rare to epidemic levels despite the many medical discoveries over the last 150 years. The reason medicine fails to solve these problems is that they are so often the result of repetitive injury. When you think about disease progression, it makes sense. All forms of repetitive harm weaken us. Unfortunately, some injuries are so slight day by day that they go unnoticed. These repetitive injuries most often result from excessive food, the wrong types of food, poor sleep habits, excessive stress, too little exercise, smoking, alcohol, or drugs. When repetitive injuries accumulate long enough, they will manifest as a disease.
Modern epidemiology (the study of disease differences in world populations) confirms that lifestyle is the most likely factor causing most modern diseases. For example, the Japanese have a much lower rate of lifestyle-related diseases. However, when the Japanese move to America, they begin to have heart disease and cancer at rates comparable with natural-born Americans.
The Europeans after World War II provide another example. Due to the war, most Europeans were forced to change their eating habits from their customary diet of meat, eggs, and dairy products to a more austere diet that was mostly plant-based whole foods. The result was a dramatic decrease in lifestyle diseases (heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, certain cancers, and arthritis.) The dramatic decline in these diseases only lasted about fifteen years beyond the end of World War II. By then, affluence had unfortunately allowed people to return to their traditional animal protein based diet.
It’s remarkable, with such strong evidence that lifestyle is the reason that our loved ones will likely die prematurely from lifestyle diseases, so few seem concerned, including the press and the Government. And yet, for most, the cause sits on the dinner table in the form of excess fat, cholesterol, refined sugar, and excess animal protein with far too little plant-based whole foods.
Part of the problem is that most lifestyle diseases don’t display any hints of the problems to come until you are seriously ill. In the case of atherosclerosis, a vessel may narrow for decades without symptoms and then suddenly become plugged up with an unannounced piece of plaque that breaks away. Often, a heart attack is the first sign of trouble, with about one-third of heart attacks resulting in death. For those that recover, their quality of life is often diminished.
Fortunately, a number of routine tests can provide an early warning of trouble to come. Indications of pre-diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are the most common warnings. In America, about one in three adults has high blood pressure that triples the likelihood of coronary death. For smokers, the odds are worse. By age 60, smokers are ten times more likely than nonsmokers to die from heart disease. Weight gain also weighs on health outcomes. Men with a BMI over 30 are five times more likely to die of heart disease by age 60 than men of a healthy weight. Heredity, age, gender, and age are risk factors a person cannot control, but they are often the least important ones when lifestyle is optimized.
While it is always better to prevent disease, the good news is that many lifestyle diseases can be reversed when attended to soon enough with intensive lifestyle changes. For example, diet changes alone can often reduce cholesterol levels by 25% with remarkable drops in blood pressure. Incredibly, simple lifestyle changes alone can do more to improve the health of our country than any proposal being offered to expand the number of doctors, increase the number of hospitals, lower drug costs, or make insurance more affordable.
The good news is that saving ourselves and our families from lifestyle diseases is something we can do without any help from the Government. It begins by collecting healthy recipes and cooking wholesome plant-based foods. For many, this may be 85% of a successful game plan. Get that one success behind you, and the rest will come more easily.
While having a deeper understanding of the underlying science is helpful, in the end, it comes down to buying nutritious foods and preparing them. For suggestions about preparing plant-based whole foods, I recommend five popular cookbooks.
- “The How Not to Die Cookbook: 100+ Recipes to Help Prevent and Reverse Disease” by Michael Greger M.D. and Gene Stone
- “The China Study Cookbook: Over 120 Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes”, by LeAnne Campbell and Steven Campbell
- “The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook: Over 125 Delicious, Life-Changing, Plant-Based Recipes” by Ann Crile Esselstyn
- “The Engine 2 Cookbook: More than 130 Lip-Smacking, Rib-Sticking, Body-Slimming Recipes to Live Plant-Strong” by Rip Esselstyn and Jane Esselstyn
- “Forks Over Knives – The Cookbook: Over 300 Recipes for Plant-Based Eating All Through the Year” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
Many more wonderful plant-based whole food cookbooks are available that offer a nearly unlimited opportunity for the most discriminating taste buds.
While I enjoy many cookbooks, I also enjoy having a magazine subscription to a plant-based whole food magazine called “Naked Foods.” The photographs of recipes in the magazine are enough to make you want to try them all. Fortunately, they are all healthy recipes.
Although the magazine is only published four times a year, a subscription to the magazine does include free viewing of all back issues and free downloading of back issues as PDF files. Articles in the magazine feature authors you will be familiar with if you have followed my articles over the years.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
More About Mindfulness
If interested in learning more about the practice of mindfulness, an interview with Sam Harris called “The transformative power of mindfulness” goes deeper into the disease of distraction, why humans suffer, the limitation of happiness, and the art of letting go of negative emotions. If the podcast pauses before ending, download (the down arrow) the podcast and play the downloaded file.
Previous articles about mindfulness you may want to revisit include:
David was trained as a professional chef, and at the time of his diagnosis with Type-2 diabetes he weighed 240 pounds. With an A1c at 9.5% he was prescribed both diabetes and cholesterol-lowering medications. In addition, his doctor told him to “eat a little better” without any indication of what that actually meant. Since David didn’t think he really felt sick at the time of his diagnosis, he just kept eating the same as he had always eaten. Changing his diet was absolutely the last thing on his mind. However, when his doctor later told him to start taking insulin, David decided that it was time for change. Motivated to find an alternative to insulin, he began searching for answers. Read the full story of how David reversed Type-2 diabetes in 5 months eating a plant-based whole food diet augmented by extra fruit to avoid feeling hungry.