Aging–that’s the subject of my book, How Not to Age. This video will give you just a taste of the vast body of evidence I’m covering in the book. Check it out.
Based on a study of more than 400,000 people, replacing just 3 percent of calories of animal protein with plant protein was associated with a 10 percent reduction in overall mortality risk. That comes out to be about an extra year of life, swapping out just 3 percent of any animal protein with plant protein, and egg protein was the worst, meaning egg whites. Swapping 3 percent of calories of egg whites for plant protein was associated with more than a 20 percent reduction in overall mortality, worse than red meat. But it’s not just about adding years to your life, but life to your years. What about changes in dietary intake of animal vs. vegetable protein and unhealthy aging?
Healthy aging is defined as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.” No one wants to be just a vegetable, and you may be able to avoid that by eating more vegetables. A higher intake of vegetable protein was associated with less accumulation of deficits, based on functional impairments, self-reported health and vitality, mental health and diseases, and the use of health services.
Swapping in just 1 percent of vegetable protein calories for animal protein led to signiﬁcantly less deﬁcit accumulation. Now, you may be thinking duh, animal protein and animal fat travel alongside each other in the same foods, so maybe this is just is all just a saturated fat effect. But no, even after accounting for fat, there still seemed to be something about the animal versus plant protein sources, though it’s still not clear if the beneficial health effects are because of an avoidance of deleterious effects associated with animal foods, or the beneficial effects of plants––though it may be a bit of both.
A recent review in a dermatology journal on the role of a whole food, plant-based diet in preventing and reversing skin aging emphasized this point. A whole food, plant-based diet is not the same thing as just a vegan diet. You can have a terribly unhealthy vegan diet. As a physician, “vegan” just tells me what you don’t eat; but you actually have to like eat your vegetables, too. But when you do, a whole food, plant-based diet can aid in the prevention, and in some cases reversal, of some of the leading chronic diseases in the United States, as well as the potential for younger-looking skin, due to telomere lengthening, maximizing the antioxidant potential of our cells, and also eliminating harmful carcinogens and aging toxins, known as gerontotoxins, from entering our bloodstream.
No wonder the highest life expectancy of any formally described population in the world may be the Adventist vegetarians in Loma Linda, California, one of the five original “blue zones” in the world. The average life expectancy of Adventist vegetarian men and women is into their 80s, about six to 10 years longer than the general population in California, with vegetarian, exercising, nut-eating, lower weight, never smokers living about nine to 11 years longer than those lacking those qualities. So, that’s like “Ten Years of Life” up for grabs.
Now, substantial gains in life expectancy would only be worthwhile if they were also accompanied by a longer period of good-quality life. Although overall wellbeing has not been measured directly, vegetarian Adventists have been recorded taking few medications, and logging fewer overnight hospital stays, and surgical procedures, and x-ray examinations. And the reduced prevalence of several chronic diseases alone would presumably make life likely more worth living.
The most feared disease associated with getting older is likely Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is one of our fastest growing epidemics, affecting one in 10 individuals older than 65 years of age, and half of all individuals older than 85. Alzheimer’s is the main type, and indeed the most feared. So, when we’re talking about “Plant-Based Diets for Healthy Aging,” particularly intriguing is emerging evidence that diet plays a major role in the prevention of age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. It has been shown that a diet rich in fruits, grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, and seeds may cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than a half.
This is the study they’re talking about. The so-called MIND diet, which emphasizes natural plant foods, including specifically berries, the healthiest fruits, and greens, the healthiest vegetables, while limiting the intakes of animal and high saturated fat foods like meat and dairy.
Stricter adherence to the MIND diet was associated with a 53 percent reduction in risk for Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, even moderate adherence appeared to cut risk by a third. Overall, participants who showed high adherence to the diet had cognitive functioning equivalent to a person who was 7.5 years younger.
No wonder people who ate meat, including poultry and fish, were more than twice as likely to become demented as their vegetarian counterparts (relative risk 2.18, p=0.065). And we’re talking three times the risk when past meat consumption was taken into account. This may be because plant-based diets are known to preserve body tissues from both oxidative stress and inﬂammation––hallmarks of these kinds of degenerative diseases. That may be why berries are so protective, since they’re so rich in antioxidants, and in terms of inflammation, those who avoid meat display a higher abundance of anti-inflammatory compounds flowing through their systems, and lower levels of proinflammatory indicators like C-reactive protein.
Dietary factors also influence the effect of stress on cognitive decline. Diets characterized by high intake of animal proteins, saturated fats, and added sugars, along with low intake of plant-based foods, can increase secretion of corticosteroids, stress hormones like cortisol from the adrenal glands, which may promote the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Then, there are the gerontotoxins, like AGEs––advanced glycation end products––in our diet that may be a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. Safe foods––foods that contain low AGE content––include starches like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, whereas the worst sources in the diet are broiled, grilled, fried, or roasted meats.
The cooking process is important. Chicken breast has an AGE amount of 1,000 KU when boiled in water, like chicken soup or something. But that same chicken breast jumps up to 9,000 when broiled. Here’s a list of the top 40 most AGE-contaminated foods tested, in terms of AGEs per serving. As you can see, it’s almost all meat: chicken, bacon, hot dogs, and on down the list. I tell people to choose raw nuts and seeds to avoid AGEs, but even roasted, toasted nuts don’t come close to making the list.
Now, of course, it’s not just diet. We need to get adequate sleep, rest, and physical activity. For example, daily brisk walks were associated with a 40 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life, and smoking may double your risk of developing dementia. But in terms of preventing Alzheimer’s with diet, the key takeaways are the following: reduce added sugars, saturated fat, animal products, and processed foods in general, while eating more plants––especially greens and beans, fruit––especially berries––and reduce added salt.
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