It's never too late

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2007

It's never too late to repent! You may think that clogged arteries and a messed-up metabolism are beyond salvation but there's encouraging news from a study at the Medical University of South Carolina. Those who changed their ways were able to decrease the risk of heart disease and death by about a third.

These folks, whose ages ranged from 45 to 64, decided to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise for at least 2 ½ hours a week and eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. These are not exactly huge lifestyle changes but the benefits became obvious after only four years.

The persons who took part in this study will enjoy more gains from that change in lifestyle than postponing heart disease and death — although those are not bad results. One of those benefits is an improved immune system.

Exercise and weight loss go a long way toward postponing or even preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes. Most people don't realize that diabetes weakens the immune system. That's why a minor skin injury in a diabetic person can progress to a serious infection. Another benefit of exercise is that it adds muscle, a storehouse of protein that the body needs to make antibodies that kill dangerous bacteria.

It doesn't take massive weight loss to produce heart benefits. Losing only about 15 pounds usually brings blood pressure down significantly. That matters because high blood pressure is a major cause of heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women.

High blood pressure also is a major cause of stroke, the third leading cause of death. Some strokes kill quickly but many patients face years of trying to recover the ability to walk, to speak or to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living.

The most challenging lifestyle change for the persons in the South Carolina study was keeping weight off. Maybe if they ate twice as much fruit and vegetables — 10 servings a day instead of the minimum of 5 — it would have been easier to shed those pounds permanently. Fruits and vegetables have so much fiber and water that they satisfy the appetite without providing too many calories. Pasta, rice and potatoes — especially French fries — have almost no fiber but several times as many calories per serving as most vegetables.

One of the reasons for the lower death rate in these converts could have been due to a lower rate of cancer. Half or more of cancers, especially those that involve the gastrointestinal tract, are diet-related and persons with a high intake of fruits and vegetables are less likely to develop them than persons who have a low intake.

The biggie, of course, is to stop smoking. It's the leading preventable cause of heart disease and it's responsible for most lung cancer and chronic lung disease. About 25 percent of Americans still smoke. Maybe if they knew that smoking is a major contributor to skin wrinkles it would help more of them to kick the habit.

The take-home message: it's never too late to begin good health habits.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.