Friday, September 9, 2011

A Great Study Proving The Obvious

Reading studies can be a tedious process. Even before you get to the actual information being presented, you have to wade through a quagmire of technical language, statistics, and graphs, all of which may or may not be worth reading for your average clinician. Once you do finally sort out what the paper says, you have to determine whether or not it has any real life applicability to your patients – a lot of studies test cell types in isolation rather than tracking symptoms in living people, or will assess blood tests rather than clinical outcomes. In addition, even if you find a study that shows that a certain substance or herb was helpful for certain symptoms, or the course of a certain illness, you face the additional challenge of being able to help patients find that substance in a dose and form that they can take and will be effective, making sure of course to verify quality. That’s why I love it when a study comes out that gives clear instructions and correlates it to significant health outcomes.

Time Magazine reported on the study using the title, “Eat Well, Move Often, Don’t Smoke, Drink a Little – And Live Long,” a title that sums up the findings of this study very clearly. A group of four researchers took the data compiled in the NHANES III study, a study which tracked over 16,000 people over twenty years, and sought out the lifestyle factors most strongly associated with a low risk for overall mortality. The four factors linked to the lowest risk for dying from any cause are: eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and low to moderate alcohol consumption. The study found these factors were also specifically linked to a low risk for dying from cancer (of any type), cardiovascular disease, as well as a generously broad category called ‘other causes’. On average, it found that individuals who observed all four of these behaviors lived about a decade longer than people who observed none.

I love this study because it’s uncomplicated and clear. We all know how to do the things they found correlated to a low risk of dying. The study didn’t suggest complicated or elaborate diets, or rigorous exercise regimens, but rather told us to eat well, move around, don’t smoke, and drink moderately. What could be simpler?

Just in case you need a bit of a reminder on how to do this, here’s a brief primer:

1. Eat a healthy diet. A plethora of fad diets abound in modern America, promising all sorts of health benefits, but when we get down to it we all know what a basic healthy diet looks like: eat plenty of vegetables, eat whole grains, eat low to moderate amounts of meat, and avoid junk food and fried food. The subjects in this study weren’t following elaborate diets, low fat diets, high fiber diets, or anything else, they were just self-reporting that they ate healthy diets. As I said, we all know what this means. If I were to plug a specific diet, I recommend a Mediterranean diet, because it’s closest to this, and is based on how people really eat.

2. Exercise regularly. A spectacular amount of science has also been devoted to exercise and it’s effect on health, but again, the longest-living subjects in this study were just self-reporting that they exercised regularly, not engaging in specific exercise programs. Exercise can be a sore topic for a lot of people, but the take-home message from this study is not that strenuous or elaborate programs are necessary, but rather that we should all move around regularly, no matter what our fitness level. Whether it’s walking, jogging, biking, swimming, playing a sport or running a marathon, we all need to move around regularly at a level that works for us. Exercise carries with it many benefits, and according to this study, it can bring a few more years of life as well.

3. Don’t smoke. We’ve come a long way from the days when doctors would endorse certain brands of cigarettes. We’ve known for decades that smoking causes emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease, and myriad other problems. For those who have never smoked, well done. For those who do and need help quitting, resources are available. This study found that smoking featured as the most important determining factor on mortality.

4. Drink moderate amounts of alcohol. This is the only dicey topic in this study, and one that requires a bit of explanation. A few studies have shown certain beneficial effects associated with moderate alcohol consumption compared with abstinence. This study did not demonstrate that. Rather, this study demonstrated that moderate or low alcohol consumption was more beneficial than high alcohol consumption. Like quitting smoking, this should be clear. For those currently in the low to moderate group, which is defined as up to but not exceeding 2 drinks per day, well done. Some can moderate their drinking more easily than others, and while problem drinking is beyond the scope of this article, resources are available.

So here’s the conclusion: You already know how to live a healthy lifestyle that could add an extra decade to your life. Eat your veggies, don’t eat junk, get some exercise, don’t smoke, and moderate your alcohol consumption. That said, we all need some help along the way, and if we were all able to do this without a problem, our country would be a healthier place. NDs, MDs, DOs and other health professionals are out there to help you on this, so reach out and get moving on this – your prize is years of healthy living on this planet.