Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases? Is it the holy grail?
Over time, chronic diseases, also known as the global burden of disease, become even more difficult to bear.
A healthy lifestyle is effective in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Cancer is more difficult, though research suggests it can be slowed with a healthy lifestyle. However, lifestyle medicine has trouble breaking through, despite its obvious advantages and effectiveness.
Costs are also steadily rising because the medicines have to be taken every day for life. So how far should we go in this?
Wouldn’t it be better to ask ourselves whether all these medicines could be avoided since they often only treat the symptoms and not the underlying cause?
This article discusses whether an adjustment to a healthier lifestyle could not already prevent many diseases, reducing the need for drugs.
Read on to learn whether a healthy lifestyle can help prevent diseases!
Table of Contents
- 1 Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases? Introduction
- 2 How much can it cost to make someone live longer?
- 3 Lifestyle modification rather than medication
- 4 Epigenetics as salvation to solve all diseases?
- 5 Telomeres as a measure of our health
- 6 Lifestyle medicine is not sexy, however
- 7 Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases? Conclusion
Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases? Introduction
In United Kingdom, there has been debate about whether to systematically give statins to all people over 75.
While these cholesterol-lowering drugs could save lives, others point out that simply eating less sugar is much more effective.
Of course, there are huge interests involved in using drugs for chronic conditions.
Just do the math on the payoffs if someone gets diabetes at, say, age 40 and has to take medications daily for the rest of their life.
In addition, certain drugs are extremely expensive, which presents us with both financial and ethical dilemmas.
How much can it cost to make someone live longer?
How much are we as a society willing to pay for someone to live a year longer?
For example, it would save a tremendous amount of money if we could keep half of all diabetics “medication-free” through lifestyle modifications.
The high cost of drug use is in stark contrast to the budget for preventive medicine, which is only a fraction of the total health care budget.
Lifestyle modifications also often work better than high-tech surgery.
A review study based on RCTs (randomized controlled trials) came to an interesting conclusion.
After placing a stent in people with stable coronary artery disease (a narrowing of the heart arteries):
- it does not reduce the risk of heart attack,
- the need for op bypass surgery is not prevented, and
- life span is not extended.
One problem with the current approach is that symptom control is often used without addressing the underlying causes of the disease.
For example, there are a few hundred drugs for diabetics, but none can cure the disease. This can only be done by, yep, adjusting your lifestyle.
And lifestyle modifications are producing spectacular results in other chronic diseases as well.
For example, a pilot project in the US found that nearly 80% of people who were eligible for bypass surgery or a stent could avoid these procedures by following an intensive lifestyle program.
Of course, this would also lead to savings in terms of health care. So that’s an answer to can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases and money.
Lifestyle modification rather than medication
It is time for lifestyle as medicine, combining ancient wisdom from various cultures with the very latest scientific insights.
And as it turns out, those insights coincide remarkably well. Therefore, few developments in medicine at this time are as exciting and promising as the lifestyle approach.
It may seem soft, but the results are hard science that we can no longer ignore.
When you say lifestyle, the first thing that often comes to mind is prevention. This is also true: prevention is indeed still better than cure. Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases?
But on the other hand, we must not deny reality either.
Indeed, there are many people with problems due to their lifestyle. Then the question arises whether we can also cure them through a healthier way of living.
Often the answer is “yes,” although this varies significantly from condition to condition:
- In the case of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a modified lifestyle can be particularly effective.
- With cancer, this is much more difficult. However, hopeful studies suggest a healthy lifestyle can slow the disease.
The fact that you can improve two very different problems (such as diabetes and heart disease) with exactly the same program indicates that, by changing your lifestyle, you are also immediately addressing the underlying causes.
This hypothesis was confirmed in a study of people with prostate cancer.
This showed that more than 500 genes in the prostate had been altered in people who had followed the so-called Ornish program.
For example, beneficial genes that had been turned off were found to be active again after three weeks. Several unfavorable genes showed just the opposite and were turned off (down-regulated).
Epigenetics as salvation to solve all diseases?
One of the most interesting medical developments of the past few decades has been the rise of epigenetics.
This new branch in the biomedical sciences has caused a scientific revolution.
A genuine paradigm shift forced scientists to thoroughly revise their view of heredity.
Human Genome Project
Beginning in the 1950s, genetics made huge strides.
One of the most ambitious projects of this new discipline was the Human Genome Project, which described all the genes of humans.
Expectations were high beforehand.
Many scientists thought they would be able to address just about all problems with this human blueprint, hereditary diseases, but also cancer, for example.
However, several decades later, we have to admit that this mega-project did not really bring about the tremendous hoped-for breakthrough after all.
One of the unexpected results was that our genome (the aggregate of all our genes) consists of far fewer genes than expected: about 21,000 instead of the previously estimated 120,000.
The emergence of a new theory
Geneticists have long known that a stem cell can develop into totally different cells: muscle cells, brain cells, bone marrow, etc.
Yet, for a long time, people held to the theory that one gene basically codes for one protein until epigenetic research showed this theory to be untenable.
The idea that genes are all-determining had to give way to the theory that one gene can code for multiple proteins and thus result in different traits.
This is possible only if an additional essential factor comes into play that determines which of the potential characteristics are ultimately expressed.
That additional factor turns out to be the environment.
In one experiment, identical cells were placed in different environments (in the case of a cell, a different culture medium in a glass dish).
Thoroughly different cells appeared in both dishes.
Our environment helps determine how our genes are expressed
What holds true for a cell in a glass dish eventually turned out to hold true for a complex organism like humans.
For humans, “environment” is both the air we breathe, the food we eat, the stress we endure, and the social (or anti-social) behavior of the people around us.
So you can’t change your genes, but you can influence whether those genes are expressed or not! A revolutionary insight that also has enormous implications for lifestyle medicine.
Meanwhile, it has already been convincingly demonstrated that lifestyle change results in a change in gene expression.
In short, thanks to epigenetics, it has become clear that we do not have to simply resign ourselves to the genes that Mother Nature has assigned to us.
We have an influence on the risk of all kinds of diseases
Only a tiny minority of (rare) disorders are fully penetrant, meaning that no matter how healthy the carrier of these genes lives, they will still become ill.
Common conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and dementia may be linked to specific genes, meaning their carriers are at greater risk, but they are not all-encompassing.
So with all these conditions, you can take care of it yourself to increase or decrease the risk of the condition.
So it’s not just Russian roulette that decides by chance whether you will have a condition.
You can think of your genes as bullets in a revolver, but the trigger that fires them or not is determined by the epigenetic factors: the environment and your lifestyle.
A (tiny) group of people have hit it off with their genes and are destined to become centenarians.
At the other end of the spectrum, some unlucky people will have problems no matter what they do.
But the vast majority of the population is in between and has a mix of good and bad genes, so a healthy lifestyle can make all the difference for them.
Lifestyle modification is beneficial for ourselves but also for our offspring
Regardless of whether you are at high or low genetic risk, in either case, you will benefit from lifestyle modifications by increasing your chances of living a long and healthy life through.
Moreover, some epigenetic changes also have an effect on subsequent generations.
So by living a healthy lifestyle, you are not only helping yourself but also your offspring!
Telomeres as a measure of our health
Scientists have also examined the relationship between lifestyle modifications and the impact on our telomere length.
Telomeres are pieces of DNA that sit at the end of a chromosome as a kind of protection. You can compare them to the plastic covers on the end of your shoelaces.
Those sheaths (telomeres) shorten as we age, eventually causing our laces (our chromosomes) to fray.
This increases the risk of things going wrong in cell division.
This means that telomeres, more specifically their length, are a good indicator of the state of our health.
Our lifestyle affects the length of our telomeres
Not everyone naturally has equally long telomeres.
Their length is determined partly by genetic factors, but even more important are the influences of our lifestyle, the diseases we have, how much stress we experience, and how we feel.
For example, people who are sick or feeling depressed have shorter telomeres on average.
Or parents who live in stressful conditions due to children who require a great deal of care have been shown to have shorter telomeres than similar individuals who do not have these concerns.
Tip: Learn why and how to lower stress to benefit yourself but also those around you in our other article: Why Is Relaxation Important for You and Those You Love?
A healthy lifestyle makes us younger
The good news is that shortening telomeres (and thus aging our cells) is a process we can influence.
Telomeres can even lengthen again under the influence of the enzyme telomerase and our lifestyle has a significant impact on telomere length.
For example, there has been a lot of research showing that walking, yoga, meditation, sleep, healthy eating, and a healthy environment all have a beneficial impact.
This is particularly hopeful: after all, it means that our cells can actually get younger again.
Since this is directly linked to our overall health and well-being, this is obviously a good thing.
Maybe we can stop aging in the future
For now, we can only slow down or temporarily reverse this shortening of telomeres. Still, it is not so crazy to think that we will succeed in stopping the shortening altogether in the future.
Okay, at this point, all of this is mere speculation, but there are scientific arguments that fuel the hope that one day we will succeed in stopping aging.
But before that happens, we’d better make the best of it and live a healthy lifestyle to keep our telomeres as long (as young) as possible.
Lifestyle medicine is not sexy, however
One caveat: all promising research on this invariably ended with the recommendation to investigate it further, on a larger scale and in people with other conditions.
That hardly ever happened.
Is it not shocking to find that a small circle of experts has known for decades that simple lifestyle adjustments are sufficient to save thousands of lives but that this knowledge is not practiced and lifestyle medicine is still considered a fringe phenomenon?
How does this happen anyway? If a drug had the same effect, the newspapers would be full of it, guaranteed, whether or not backed by an influential lobby that knows how to push the right political buttons left and right.
Lifestyle modification does not receive enough attention when studying medicine
Unfortunately, physicians are not sufficiently familiar with the subject matter. During training, little attention is paid to the impact of diet, exercise, stress, and social support.
The traditional approach is still to wait until there are problems and treat each problem individually with a drug or intervention rather than asking can a healthy lifestyle prevent disease.
There’s not much money to be made with lifestyle modifications, either
On top of that, there is very little money to be made in lifestyle medicine. On the face of it, anyway, since you can’t patent it or sell it.
But on the other hand, it would be much cheaper for patients and society should we focus on lifestyle modifications.
Fortunately, the tide is turning thanks to physicians (especially those who have faced these problems themselves) and also patients who have become true experts through first-hand experience by searching the scientific literature themselves.
They are now creating a change that is causing more and more people to discover and put into practice the potential of lifestyle as medicine.
Can a healthy lifestyle prevent diseases? Conclusion
Many drugs could be made unnecessary if more attention was paid to so-called lifestyle medicine.
This means that one could prevent several diseases simply by adjusting our environment and pursuing a healthier lifestyle.
Although there have already been promising scientific studies indicating the benefits of lifestyle medicine, little attention has been paid to it.
This is partly because traditional medicine still focuses primarily on solving problems rather than addressing the cause of those problems.
Furthermore, there is undoubtedly a financial reason why this is not receiving more attention. The drug lobby cannot earn anything from this, making it uninteresting to promote.
However, it could result in quite a bit of financial savings for both the patient and society as a whole.
However, not to worry, there is indeed a movement to bring lifestyle medicine more into the spotlight.
The question remains how long it will take before this currently alternative form of medicine will be recognized and incorporated into traditional medicine.
Related: In effect, a healthy lifestyle can make us live longer, too. Find out in our other article how that is possible: Why Do We All Age Differently? Key Factors Explained