The following article was also published in the Health and Wellness section of The Jerusalem Post (19th June 2022): https://www.jpost.com/health-and-wellness/exercise/article-709770
The word “default” wasn’t used a lot before the mid 90’s. That’s when the PC gained popularity with Windows 3.11 and then 95. We were able to adjust the different default settings on our computer. You can set which internet browser you want to use, what email program you want, as well as which program opens your photos. You choose them, you can change them with a click or two, and nothing is set in stone. Pick what you want. So, what is supposed to be the default setting for the health of a human being?
What will happen to me?
For those of us who have grown up in Western society, our most likely expectations of our health status throughout our lives would be going from young, vibrant and relatively healthy, to wondering what dreaded disease we will get and at what age. After all, sometime between age zero and 80, the odds are pretty good for at contracting at lease one chronic disease, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, the Western cancers, dementia, and a whole host of autoimmune diseases. They used to be rare, but have now permeated our society causing misery and suffering. An older client of mine once told me that at her age when you wake up in the morning and something doesn’t hurt, you check to see if you are alive. Does that really have to be the case? What is our default setting for health? Is HEALTH the actual default setting of human beings?
Understanding the default setting
I can state unequivocally, that based on decades of research, the default setting of human beings is to be healthy. Being sick, whether the common cold or suffering from chronic conditions is abnormal. And we can take this a step further. The vast majority of people should be living long and healthy lives, with good quality of life until we approach our final days.
When it comes to assessing health, we love to focus on statistics, especially longevity. We update average life expectancy by country each and every year. Here in Israel, we are pretty good in that department—life expectancy is slightly more than 83 years for the population. By comparison, the United States is now 76.6 years and dropping. But what this doesn’t measure is what is now being called healthgevity, meaning the quality of life as one ages. It’s great to live to 100 or more, but how functional will we be as we age? Every time my wife and I have a new grandchild born, someone inevitably gives us the blessing of “being able to dance at his/her wedding.” That is truly the name of the game.
The Blue Zones – a good examples
Modern medicine has a lot of tools to keep us alive longer. But as we have seen by the reversal of life expectancy in the United States, it will only work to a point. Living a life of plenty, eating as much as you want of anything you want, being sedentary, lacking sleep and suffering from stress never has a good outcome. It’s not JUST the obesity. Those same foods that are shortening our lives and making us obese are highly inflammatory and detrimental in many ways. We all know from the Covid-19 pandemic how inflammation in the body can make a bad health situation even worse.
But what about that default setting of health we spoke about? It exists in various societies around the world. They are called the Blue Zones, based on the research done on longevity and quality of life by Dan Buettner and National Geographic. The Blue Zones are 5 places in the world where a large segment of the population live beyond 100:
- Icaria, Greece.
- Sardinia, Italy.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
- Loma Linda, United States.
- Okinawa, Japan
What’s it like in the Blue Zones?
These are the 5 populations studied, but there are more. What are the factors that give these societies a long, happy and healthy life? It’s not the best doctors or the best hospitals. There are 6 factors that overlap all of these populations, aside from some specific healthy factors that are unique to each one. But let’s look at these six:
- No smoking
- A plant-heavy diet
- Importance of family
- Constant, moderate physical activity
- Legumes are an integral part of the plant-heavy diet
- Good social interaction
In the Blue Zones, and in people who eat a whole-food, plant-based diet together, with the other precepts of lifestyle medicine, cellular aging actually reverses. YES, you heard me right.
Reversing aging on a cellular level
The ends of our chromosomes that regulate aging are called telomeres. These tips, similar to the ends of shoelaces, tend to get shorter and brittle as you age. Their job is protect your DNA from damage. Shorter telomeres are associated with premature death as well as chronic disease. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering discoveries in this field. She worked together with Dr. Dean Ornish in running a 5 year trial putting one group on a program of lifestyle medicine and the other group on a standard Western lifestyle. After the 5 years the control group’s telomere length decreased by 3 percent. However, the lifestyle medicine group had a 10 percent increase in length.
As Dr. Ornish writes in his book Undo It!, The Lancet termed this as reversing aging on a cellular level. While we can’t turn the clock back on our chronological age, we can slow and reverse the process in our cells. What helps our telomeres also helps our microbiome function, our DNA, and our immune systems.
In short, we don’t have to live in Okinawa or Sardinia in order to get the same benefits that they get. We simply have to be accepting of the fact that the greatest factors in having a long and healthy life are in our hands. A plant-strong diet, being active, getting enough sleep, not smoking or abusing any substance along with good stress management will bring us to our natural default setting and “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”