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Healthy Aging, With Nary a Supplement

January 12, 2010; New York Times; Healthy Aging, With Nary a Supplement; By Jane E. Brody.

The Great Recession, so I'm told, has been great for one segment of the economy -- the makers of pills and potions that offer the promise of keeping people healthy. A middle-aged woman remarked as she perused the supplement shelves in my local health food store (I was buying bulgur): ''I can't afford to get sick. I lost my job and I have no health insurance.''

Each year millions of people fall prey to false promises that this, that or the other formula or fortified food can protect their hearts, prevent cancer, improve memory, strengthen their bones, uncreak their joints, build their muscles, even enable them to burn extra calories without moving.

The desire to achieve a healthy old age is laudable indeed, and will be even more so in the future. According to a projection of the century-long rise in life expectancy published in The Lancet in October, more than half the children born since 2000 in wealthy countries can expect to celebrate their 100th birthday.

If so many of us are destined to become centenarians, it is all the more important to be able to enjoy those years unencumbered by chronic disease and disability. There is no virtue in simply living long; the goal should be to live long and well.

But while much is known about how to raise the odds of a healthy old age, only a minority of Americans incorporate into their lives what is likely to give them the biggest bang for their buck. Like the woman in the health food store, they'd rather rely on supplements of vitamins and minerals, fish oils and herbs, perhaps washed down with pricey antioxidant juices.

Unfortunately, sound evidence for the benefits of most such products is sorely lacking; in some cases the best scientific evidence has shown no benefit, and in a few cases has even shown harm. Human chemistry is far more complex than visionaries thought just two decades ago, when reputable scientists pushed for fortifying foods with substances they believed would prevent cancer and heart disease.

The Longevity Diet

After decades of government guidelines and advice from friends, family and physicians, Americans have made some improvements in their eating habits. On average, we consume less red meat and saturated fat and somewhat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Our processed foods were recently stripped of artery-clogging trans fats, thanks to a campaign that challenged the food industry to better protect American hearts. And our pigs (though, alas, not our people) have gotten much leaner in recent years.

But, and this is a big but, we are a long way from consuming the kind of diet most closely linked to a low risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and dementia. That diet need not be strictly vegetarian, but it should emphasize plant-based foods over the meat and other products that come from animals that eat plants. The closer to the earth we eat, the healthier -- and leaner -- we are likely to be.

Most of the evidence for the assumed health benefits of specific nutrients comes not from stuffing people with supplements but rather from observing the effects of eating foods rich in these nutrients. Supplements of antioxidants failed to protect against disease the way a diet rich in fruits and vegetables seems to. Rather than isolated nutrients, combinations of them, along with other perhaps unidentified substances in foods, are now thought to confer the observed health benefits.

You have no doubt heard much about the so-called Mediterranean diet, and with good reason. This eating style, in its classic form, is most closely linked to a healthy body and mind as people age: a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. It is loaded with nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits, beans and grains, fish and shellfish, but relatively little meat and poultry. Olive oil is the primary fat for cooking and eating, even replacing butter as a smear on bread.

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