Scientists this week are reporting a breakthrough therapy to lower the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer by about 80 percent.
The therapy is called taking care of yourself: not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight.
True, you'd have to be smoking something hallucinogenic to not understand that cigarettes are unhealthy. Take away cigarettes, and you take away lung cancer and a good deal of heart disease. Similarly, the mantra of eating right and exercising has been drilled into us. Pork rinds and videogame expertise does not a healthy body make.
What's new, though, is evidence of the cumulative protective effect provided by all four healthy factors. The research, published in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, involves over 23,000 Germans and is part of a larger, ongoing European study on lifestyle choices and disease.
Action Cheaper Than Reaction
Chronic diseases are expensive because, as the name implies, they stay around usually for the rest of your life. This adds up in terms of drug costs, surgery, hospital stays, missed work and lower productivity.
Obesity is costing millions in healthcare, and while there's some overlap, diabetes, cancer care and heart disease are the three biggest preventable chronic diseases.
The Way It Was
Diabetes doesn't need to exist, and it hardly did
exist until the 20th century. The researchers found
that four health factors contributed to a 93-percent
reduced risk in developing diabetes among the people
in the study.
Almost all cancers that exist today are new diseases, not old ones. For the most part, their existence is less than a century old. The proliferation of toxins in food, public water supplies, and increased environmental pollution in the last few decades have been major contributors to the causes of every type of cancer.
Heart disease, too, is largely preventable. Here the risk of a heart attack was lowered by 81 percent. In fact an unrelated study, also published this week, in PLoS ONE, suggests that heart attacks and strokes may have been rare for the vast majority of human history.
For this PLoS One study, team led by Michael Gurven of University of California, Santa Barbara, studied a remote Amazonian tribe in Bolivia known as the Tsimane. They found that peripheral arterial disease does not increase with age in this population despite risk factors found in industrialized countries, such as chronic inflammation and tobacco use. The implication is that these risk factors become deadly only in the context of an unhealthy diet and an inactive lifestyle.
Of course, life isn't a paradise in the Amazon. Life expectancy is around 50 years, and half the Tsimane die from infectious or parasitic disease. Other leading causes of death are accidents and violence. Yet they remain mostly remarkably fit throughout life. This is the natural state for humans.
Genetics do play some role in chronic disease.
For example, some people pack on extra pounds easily. Yet as the German study and other large studies are revealing, the obesity epidemic is mostly driven by lifestyle choices. The genetic predisposition, if any, is not the ease in gaining weight but the difficulty in losing it.
The key to affordable healthcare, according to these two studies, is to pay for disease prevention, not treatment.
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