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A Sense of Purpose = Longer Life

Having a high sense of purpose in life appears to lower your risk of death and cardiovascular disease. That conclusion comes from an analysis of 10 studies conducted in the U.S. and Japan involving data on 136,265 participants whose average age was 67. The men and women were followed for an average of 7 years during which more than 14,500 of them died and more than 4,000 suffered a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event. The researchers found after adjusting for other factors that the death rate was about 20 percent lower for the participants who reported a strong sense of purpose in life (this is called ikigai in Japanese, which translates to “a life worth living”.) The authors of the investigation, from Mt. Sinai-St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, noted a “well documented link” between “negative psychosocial risk factors” and heart attack, stroke and overall death and wrote that more recent evidence suggests that positive psychosocial factors can lead to better health and longer life. The study didn’t explain the mechanisms of how a purposeful life could promote health and deter disease, but the researchers suggested that a sense of purpose might help buffer physical responses to stress or perhaps, simply lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Sitting is Unhealthy … Unless You’re Physically Fit

Here’s some good news for a change about the health risks of prolonged sitting: a new study has found that it’s not so bad for you if you’re physically fit. Prolonged sitting at your desk, on your couch and in your car has previously been linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and premature death. The study, at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas, enrolled 1,304 men between 1981 and 2012. The participants reported on how much time they spent watching TV and sitting in their cars and took a treadmill test to determine their physical fitness. Results showed that once physical fitness was factored in, prolonged sitting was associated only with a higher ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol, not the long list of health problems identified in earlier studies. This undoubtedly won’t be the last word on the subject, but it does hint that for those with desk jobs, long commutes and some TV time, the impact of sitting on health may not be as negative as earlier studies suggested.

Kerem Shuval et al, “Sedentary Behavior, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Physical Activity, and Cardiometabolic Risk in Men: The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, doi 10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.04.026

Good News About Nuts

You’ve heard it dozens of times - nuts are good for you, but don’t eat too many because they are full of fat and calories. However, research indicates that the reality is somewhat more complex – and that’s good news for nut-lovers who are watching their weight. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that while a handful (about 22 kernels) of almonds contains 170 calories, only 129 calories are actually absorbed by the body. The rest are passed, because the protein and fat in them are relatively hard to digest. Even better news – after one daily handful of almonds, three percent of the calories you consume for the next 24 hours are rendered indigestible. That means if you eat 2,000 calories in a day, the almonds you ate in the morning will remove about 60 calories from that total. The effect probably applies to other kinds of nuts, although only almonds have been rigorously studied. So enjoy your nuts – their monounsaturated fat content appears to lower cardiovascular risk. And of course, they’re delicious!

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Do Bad Teeth = Heart Trouble?

The link between poor dental health and cardiovascular disease is still being examined, but results of a large study that looked at data from nearly 16,0000 people from 39 countries add to a growing body of evidence suggesting an association between oral and heart health. All had coronary heart disease and at least one other risk factor for heart problems. Nearly 70 percent were current or former smokers, and it appears the oral health of the participants also left a lot to be desired. Responses to a questionnaire showed that one quarter of the study participants experienced gum bleeding while they brushed their teeth (a sign of gum disease); 41 percent said that they had fewer than 15 teeth left and 16 percent reported having no teeth at all. The research team, from the Uppsala University in Sweden, identified links between periodontal disease (including bleeding gums), tooth loss and other risk factors for heart disease, such as large waist circumference, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. However, the study’s lead author acknowledged that more research is needed to determine whether practicing good dental hygiene can actually help lower the risk of heart disease.

My take? One of the first studies linking oral health and heart disease was published online in the journal Stroke on July 31, 2003. It showed that the more teeth a person has lost, the more likely he or she is to have both advanced periodontal infections and plaques in the carotid arteries that supply the brain with blood. Conceivably, oral health may contribute to heart disease through processes involving inflammation. A secondary contributor to a link may be inadequate nutritional intake. If you lack teeth, you can't optimally process your food and may not get adequate amounts of heart-healthy nutrients and fiber. Research suggests that people with poor oral health should have cardiac exams even if they have no symptoms of heart disease, and the new study supports this recommendation.

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Olga Vedin et al, “Periodontal disease in patients with chronic coronary heart disease: Prevalence and association with cardiovascular risk factors,” European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, April 10, 2014, doi: 10.1177/2047487314530660

More Worries About Diet Drinks

Middle-aged women who consume more than two diet drinks a day may be setting themselves up for heart attacks, stroke or other cardiovascular problems according to research results presented at the March 29-31 scientific meeting of the American College of Cardiology. The new findings come from a study including nearly 60,000 postmenopausal women who described their weekly consumption of diet sodas and diet fruit drinks over a three-month period. Analysis of the data gathered showed that women who consumed two or more drinks a day were 30 percent more likely to develop a cardiovascular problem and 50 percent more likely to die from a heart-related disease than women who rarely or never drank diet beverages. The researchers determined after nearly nine years of follow up that 8.5 percent of the women who drank the most diet drinks developed cardiovascular conditions compared to 6.9 percent of those who reported having five to seven diet drinks per week, 6.8 percent of those who had one to four diet drinks per week, and 7.2 percent of those who had zero to three of these drinks per month. The findings persisted even after researchers adjusted for smoking, BMI, hormone therapy use, physical activity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other risks for cardiovascular disease. Women who had a history of cardiovascular disease were not included in the study.

My take? This isn’t the first bad news about diet drinks. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that the risk of heart attack and stroke or other vascular event was 43 percent higher among individuals who had a daily diet soda habit than those who didn’t consume these drinks, or who did so infrequently. Research at Harvard has suggested that drinking two or more diet sodas daily is associated with a decline in a measure of kidney function in women, and a Danish study found that the risk of giving birth prematurely increased by 38 percent among women who drank diet soda daily and by 78 percent among those who drank four or more diet sodas per day. There’s also evidence linking diet sodas to weight gain. Over the course of nine years, epidemiologists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found a 70 percent greater increase in weight circumference among participants in a study of aging who drank diet soda compared to those who didn’t. Bottom line: sodas, and diet sodas in particular, have no place in a healthy diet.

Ankur Vyas et al,  "Too many diet drinks may spell heart trouble for older women, study suggests." American College of Cardiology, March 29-31, 2014.

Why Take Blood Pressure in Both Arms?

If you take your own blood pressure, it’s a good idea to check it in both arms (and ask your doctor to do so as well). A study published in the March 2014, issue of The American Journal of Medicine found that a 10- point difference or more in blood pressure readings when comparing the pressures in both arms is an independent risk factor for heart disease. The study included 3,390 people age 40 and older who were followed for an average of more than 13 years. None of them had cardiovascular disease when they enrolled, but during the 13-year follow up period, 598 had a first heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problems. Of those 598, 14 percent had a difference of 10 points or more in systolic blood pressure (the top number) from one arm compared to the other. This difference was associated with an increased risk for a cardiac event, the researchers concluded, even when an individual had no other apparent risk factors including age, cholesterol, body mass index and high blood pressure. The researchers noted that other studies have associated disparate readings between arms with a narrowing of an artery that supplies blood to the upper extremities.

Ido Weinberg et al, “The Systolic Blood Pressure Difference Between Arms and Cardiovascular Disease in the Framingham Heart Study,” The American Journal of Medicine, March 2014

Even More Good News About Nuts

The latest study on the health effects of eating almonds, pistachios, walnuts and other tree nuts shows that individuals who eat one ounce a week of these varieties have a seven percent lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Eating two ounces per week reduces the risk by 14 percent. Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of health factors associated with substantially increased risks for cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. The study, published on January 8, 2014, in the online journal PLOS One, included 803 Seventh-day Adventists who recorded their consumption of tree nuts and peanuts, and whether they were eaten together or separately. The researchers, from Loma Linda University, reported that while overall nut consumption was linked with a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, tree nuts specifically provide benefits independent of demographic, lifestyle and other dietary factors. The study also showed that participants who ate the most tree nuts had a “significantly lower prevalence of obesity” compared to those whose nut consumption was low. In addition to almonds, walnuts and pistachios, tree nuts include Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans and pine nuts.

Karen Jaceldo-Siegl et al,  “Tree Nuts Are Inversely Associated with Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: The Adventist Health Study-2”. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85133. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085133