Who Needs Doctors?

I once had an extraordinary adviser I called my body coach. Most people thought of him as a personal trainer, but his holistic approach to personal health and his constant preaching that an individual has the power to control his or her health put him in a higher category.

I was reminded of him recently as two studies came in that illustrate something he told me over and over: “Be careful what you put into your body, because that’s what it will become made of.”

In April, at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Washington, D.C., Dr. Yang Gu presented the results of an investigation that everyone should know about. The study included 674 people over the age of 65 living in upper New York City who had no indications of dementia.

Researchers used MRIs to study the brains of these individuals, measuring their intracranial volume, gray matter volume, total brain volume, thickness of the cortex and white matter volume. The bottom line of the study is kind of amazing: People who ate more fish and less meat had larger brains as they aged.

Scientists have long known that our brains tend to diminish in size, and thus capacity, as we age. But this study is the first to link a healthy diet and brain size. The authors of the study were able to show that people in the study who ate a Mediterranean diet (fish rather than meat, olive oil as the primary fat, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, low dairy consumption) had bigger brains as they aged.

In studies like these, there can always be a hidden underlying cause based on the population involved, but the results do make sense. It’s important to remember than these kinds of results are based on people eating a good diet over many years.

Fish

Eat more fish to keep your brain from shrinking as you age.

At about the same time I was fascinated by that study, another one based the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey caught my eye. It also showed how much control people have over their own health. Based on the American Heart Association’s seven ideal metrics, it showed that people who adopt just five of the AHA’s metrics have about 80% less chance of dying prematurely than those who don’t.

The seven metrics are normal body mass index, not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, controlling blood pressure, keeping cholesterol levels normal and keeping blood glucose levels normal. Just four of the metrics significantly reduce heart disease: not smoking, a good diet, exercise and a normal weight. There simply isn’t any medicine that can do that, and there may never be one.

These are hardly the first studies to indicate that a healthy lifestyle will keep most people disease free and long-lived. The challenge is convincing people to make lifestyle changes. I remember that when my cholesterol levels started rising years ago my doctor wanted to put me on statins immediately.

I demurred and suggested we try lifestyle changes, especially diet and exercise. She said that would be great except that only a very few patients in her entire career had made the necessary changes and stuck with them. Physicians regularly report on surveys that they lack confidence their patients will lead healthier lifestyles even if told to do so directly.

One thing that has worked significantly well is to make unhealthy lifestyle choices expensive and humiliating. Smoking is no longer thought to be cosmopolitan or admirable, and taxes have made the cost of a pack of cigarettes almost unaffordable. In New York, I recently asked a clerk how much a single pack of 20 cigarettes costs: $14. Although it might be difficult to tax unhealthy snack foods, it wouldn’t be difficult to tax foods and beverages high in sugar.

And here’s another tactic to create changes in lifestyles: Cities that build more and better sidewalks and offer rent-a-bike programs as well as bicycle paths find that more citizens use them, including schoolchildren.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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