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Lifestyle Changes Can Extend Your Life, But Who Cares?

Is Your Doctor Paying Attention
to Your Lifestyle Choices? Are You?

English: Telomere caps can be modifed with lifestyle changes

English: Telomere caps he:תמונה:Telomere caps.gif (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent study by Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues proves once again the power of lifestyle upgrades to extend life. This small study compared the effects of a low-fat, low-processed carbohydrate diet, moderate walking exercise and stress reduction routines on men with low-risk prostate tumors with men who didn’t participate in the lifestyle program. It looked specifically at the impact on telomere length of the study participants.

As this report explains:

“Telomeres are the end-caps on chromosomes that, under normal circumstances, grow shorter with each round of cell division. When they reach a certain critical length, cells stop dividing and eventually senesce and die.”

The study itself in the journal The Lancet elaborates:

“Telomere shortness in human beings is a prognostic marker of ageing, disease, and premature morbidity. We previously found an association between 3 months of comprehensive lifestyle changes and increased telomerase activity in human immune-system cells. We followed up participants to investigate long-term (5-year) effects.”

In brief, telomeres generally shorten with age and disease, while longer telomeres indicate cell health and longevity.    

Biological Effects of
Lifestyle Behaviors

It’s no surprise that telomere lengths actually increased in most of those undertaking the lifestyle interventions, while telomere lengths decreased in those in the control group that weren’t in the lifestyle intervention. Those driven to be healthy adhered most to the lifestyle intervention and had telomere lengths that increased twice as much as they were shortened in those who did not.

This is further evidence that lifestyle interventions – even modest ones – have significant biological effects that affect disease progression and lengthen human life. If a medication were to be discovered that produced these results, it’d be heralded as headline news.

The difficulty, of course, is that even modest lifestyle changes aren’t as easy as popping a pill. This study included a low-fat, low-refined carb diet, moderate walking and an hour a day of meditation, deep breathing and other stress reduction practices. None of these are especially demanding, but they do require effort, discipline, and persistence. 

It’s one of life’s ironies that, as much as we fear death – and tolerate all kinds of extreme medical interventions to forestall it – we’re generally too unmotivated to do what it takes to avoid it. Those who take the lessons of research like Dr. Ornish’s to heart are often not those most in need of it. And to the extent they are, it’s often only after a near-death experience awakens them.

Where Are Our Docs on This?

The medical profession has largely given up on trying to convince patients to adopt these proven lifestyle changes – abdicating responsibility to educate and support patients in favor of a less demanding dismissal of such efforts as a waste of time.

It’s easy to understand why so many physicians take this easy way out. They get to spend less time with patients in need of such counseling and encouragement while earning more money by seeing more patients with the time they’d otherwise be spending trying to motivate and monitor patients to live more healthfully.

Prescribing another medication is easier for both doctor and patient – and the path of least resistance for both.

This isn’t about to change anytime soon. The move to Accountable Care Organizations will, however, at least move the needle more in the direction by emphasizing treatment outcomes over treatment volumes.

But the burden of treating another 30 million newly-insured Americans as Obamacare goes full throttle over the next few years is likely to encourage most physicians to reach for their prescription pads with even greater abandon in order to keep up with patient demand.

So despite the mounting evidence of the superiority, in many instances, of lifestyle interventions over chemical ones, the prognosis for their broad adoption – by doctors and patients alike – remains grim. There’s just not enough money in it.

Until there is, the medical model will continue to give short shrift to lifestyle education and support – longer telomeres notwithstanding.

And that’s just more evidence of how our healthcare sucks.

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4 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. forestborj
    January 5, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    Wonderful read. I myself am a huge advocate of a well rounded approach to health, and this largely includes lifestyle. I also believe that instead of letting technology ruling our lives, we should take advantage of technology to complement our lives. Take for example wearable tech as an assistant to fitness. A seemingly small development can improve your fitness regimen by leaps and bounds because of monitoring ability you can’t have otherwise.

  2. Allen
    December 8, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    Nice article, in my view the problem is that most Doctors simply aren’t very good at convincing patients to change their lifestyle. Mainly because none of their training prepares them to do so.

  3. Chau Son
    October 5, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    Hi John,
    It is not easy that a man changes his habit just when he is going to die.
    I have many patients restarting to smoke after being saved from heart attack.
    I can not say anything with them.

    • John Lynch
      October 12, 2013 at 7:56 am #

      Hi Chau. Thanks for commenting.

      I agree that in your example it’s probably too little too late. People in that circumstance probably are resigned to a rapid death. And at that stage of disease, lifestyle changes won’t make much difference anyway.

      This post is addressing those with a bit more life expectancy. Lifestyle changes don’t benefit us overnight. It’s a longer-term and cumulative benefit, but it’s very real and very powerful for those with the self-discipline to keep at it.

      I hope that won’t stop you from counseling those in this situation as the right lifestyle measures can be a powerful adjuvant therapy for many medical conditions that enables lower medication dosages and more effective treatment regimens.

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