Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Education, the Best Protection Against Obesity and Related Diseases

March 12th, 2014 at 12:43 pm by timigustafson

With growing wealth in many developing countries around the world, diet and lifestyle changes are showing dramatic increases in obesity and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. From Central and South America to the Middle East to Asia, weight problems are now among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. But more than rising standards of living, lack of education seems to contribute to these dismal trends.

In China, India and Brazil, where economic growth has been especially dramatic but has also created vast inequalities in their populations, diet and lifestyle changes have had a particularly profound impact on the risk of obesity, according to one study that investigated the effects of rising incomes on people’s health.

In Mexico, which is considered a middle-income country, prevalence of obesity proved to be the highest among those who were better off financially but had little education. Similar findings were made in Egypt, a low-income country, where obesity has become a fast growing problem, especially among women. Here too, increasing wealth is a predictor – but even more so, lack of schooling.

“For the first time, we have studied the interaction between wealth and education and found they have fundamentally different effects on obesity,” said Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi, the lead author of the Egypt study.

Greater exposure of emerging economies to global food markets and rising buying power of consumers lead to these consequences. The best way to prevent this from happening would be to invest in education, especially in women who are in charge of food shopping, cooking, and taking care of the health needs of their families, she said.

“Our study suggests that investing in women’s education protects against this effect by empowering individuals to look after their health,” she said to Science Daily.

As ‘gatekeepers’ in their households, women have the most influence on the nutritional wellbeing of children, which is our best hope for breaking the vicious circle that begins with childhood obesity and subsequent, often chronic, health issues during adulthood.

Scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the environment we live in is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic, Dr. Aitsi-Selmi said. We can only change the environment by changing the behavior of individuals. And that is best accomplished through education.

Obviously, providing even a basic amount of health education in different socio-economic and cultural settings is no easy task in one country, let alone on a global scale. But, as this study and others have shown, increase in literacy and greater opportunities for learning have many benefits and can provide the groundwork for attitude and behavior modifications, including improving eating habits.

It also means that greater affordability of food does not automatically lead to better health outcomes – sometimes to the contrary. Only when people understand how their diet and lifestyle choices affect them, they can make appropriate changes and take control of their wellbeing.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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The New Great Divide: Longevity

September 26th, 2012 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson

The United States of America have often been called a divided nation, separated by race, class, political affiliation, values, you name it. Now, one study has found that we are also drifting apart in terms of life expectancy. While the better-off can hope to live longer than ever, the rest falls behind and may even die at a younger age than their parents.

Educated white males seem to have the edge on longevity. Conversely, the least educated and often poorest Americans, regardless of gender or race, are moving in the opposite direction. The average life expectancy for them has fallen by four years since 1990.

The disparities are most dramatic between highly educated white men and the least educated black men, about 14 years, according to Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study report.

These widening gaps within our society have lead to “at least two Americas, if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership,” said Dr. Olshansky.

The causes behind these trends are not altogether clear, although unhealthy lifestyles like alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, poor diets, obesity and lack of health care coverage are among the most likely factors.

A separate study predicts that obesity, along with multiple related diseases, will continue to rise across the nation, but especially in states with the poorest populations. The report, sponsored by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), concluded that the numbers of diet and lifestyle-related illnesses could increase tenfold by 2020 and double again by 2030.

Currently, more than 25 million Americans suffer from diabetes, 27 million from chronic heart disease, 68 million from hypertension and 50 million have arthritis. Every year, almost 800,000 have a stroke, and about one in three deaths from cancer are related to weight problems, poor eating habits and physical inactivity.

While many Americans are becoming more health-conscious, the majority continues on a dismal path. “This study shows us two futures of America’s health,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo, president and CEO of RWJF. “At every level of government, we must pursue policies that preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs,” she said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”

Treating obesity and related diseases already costs an estimated $147 to $210 billion annually in health care, and these numbers will increase by another $48 to $66 billion if current trends persist, according to TFAH. The only way to change course is “to invest in obesity prevention programs that match the severity of the problem,” said Jeff Levi, TFAH’s executive director, at a news conference for the study release. The report included a series of policy recommendations such as swift implementation of existing legislation (e.g. the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) as well as creation of additional prevention strategies and action plans.

Government can definitely play an important role in the fight against the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Thomas A. Farley, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Government regulations are a justifiable option when they lead to preventing excess calorie consumption and obesity-related health problems and deaths, he wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In this country, we have long treated lifestyle choices as personal matters that should not be regulated or interfered with, even if they produce undesirable results. It’s a part of our individualistic culture. There is much to be said for that, but, as it is becoming increasingly apparent on so many levels, our attitudes have consequences, and sometimes they make the difference between life and death.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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How Can Education Make You Live Longer? It’s Complicated

April 4th, 2012 at 4:39 pm by timigustafson

The average life expectancy of all Americans has continuously increased over the past few generations for a number of reasons, including advances in nutrition, hygiene and medical care. But there are significant disparities within the population, which seem to be linked to social, economic and – as it turns out – educational differences.

According to a new study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there could be a direct correlation between a person’s education and the number of years he or she can hope to live.

For this study, researchers analyzed over 3,000 counties nationwide and ranked them within their respective states by a number of diverse measures, including access to quality healthcare, obesity rates, tobacco sales, unemployment, environmental pollution, crime rates, even the density of fast food outlets. The significance of education levels stood out.

“If you have a community with a high number of high school dropouts, with a high unemployment rate and with children living in poverty, you can absolutely predict that poor health outcomes will be coming down the road,” said Dr. Pat Remington, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and director of the study.

Unemployment and poverty do not only lead to deprivation of essential resources such as good nutrition and basic health care but often also to self-destructive behaviors like smoking and alcohol- and drug abuse. “All these things are part of a web of health,” Dr. Remington added.

The Wisconsin study is not the first that has found a link between education and longevity. A study from Harvard University, published in 2008, described “a stunning correlation between the longer lifespan of people with at least one year of college compared to people with a high school education or less,” according to Dr. David Cutler, dean of social sciences at Harvard. Better educated adults gained on average 1.5 years of life expectancy over 10 years and an additional 1.6 years over 20 years compared to those with a high school diploma or less.

Going to college by itself, of course, does not automatically make you live longer. But the study does suggest that better education often leads to better lifestyle choices. “It turns out that across the board, if you look at any health behavior, better educated people do better than less educated, said Dr. Cutler. “Anything from smoking, obesity, wearing seat belts, having a smoke detector in your house, not using illegal drugs, not drinking heavily, better educated people do better,” he said.

Conversely, the average life expectancy of obese people, smokers and those without access to preventive health care has begun to plateau. Due to growing childhood obesity, some experts predict that the lifespan of significant parts of the population will likely decline in the future.

Needless to say that none of these findings are clear-cut. There are plenty of folks with PhDs and beyond who are overweight and smoke and drink heavily. “Sometimes, even a good education can’t keep smart people from doing dumb things,” said Lee Dye, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times who reported on the Harvard study.

And even centenarians have bad habits. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that the 100 plus crowd does generally not adhere to dramatically healthier lifestyle choices than the rest of us. There seems to be no particular formula that allows some people to live exceptionally long lives. Even genetic factors have turned out to be less important than some have suggested, as demonstrated in studies that followed identical twins who were separated at birth, lived under vastly different circumstances and died at different ages.

Besides reasonably healthy diet and lifestyle choices, one thing, however, seems to matter greatly. People who remain free of debilitating illnesses at old age, physically as well as mentally, are typically very active. They enjoy a vibrant social life, pursue multiple interests, maintain a positive attitude and know how to take care of their needs. They may be well educated, but not always in terms of formal education. An open mind and an insatiable curiosity may have gotten them just as far.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Exercising the brain as much as exercising the body to keep both fit and healthy has become the new mantra for the aging baby boomer generation. Scientists seem to agree. Studies show that people who were cognitively active throughout their lives are less likely to experience mental decline as they grow older.

Age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease is the most feared health condition among older Americans today, second only to cancer. It is also one of the most significant health threats of the 21st century, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health that was first published at an international conference on the subject in Paris, France, last year.

The causes for Alzheimer’s are not yet fully understood and there are currently no effective treatments that can halt or reverse the progressively debilitating disease. Researchers have suggested that diet and exercise as well as mental stimulation may serve as preventive measures, but there is not enough scientific evidence that these have a significant impact.

There are a number of health conditions, however, believed to promote the development of dementia. One is inflammation of the brain caused by stress hormones such as cortisol, which is toxic to nerve cells in the brain and especially to those responsible for memory. Another contributing factor is cardiovascular disease because it can prevent the brain from receiving sufficient blood supply, thereby damaging it.

A more controversial suggestion is that education, or lack thereof, can make a difference in the likelihood of someone becoming demented later in life. Obviously, the notion that the well-educated have a better shot at staying mentally healthy while the unschooled run the risk of losing their minds is hard to accept because it sounds elitist and snobbish. That makes it difficult to raise the issue without provoking strong reactions. Still, we have to look at the evidence.

Neuroscientists say that the reason why education can help prevent or at least slow down an aging person’s cognitive decline is that during learning processes structural changes in the brain’s neural network take place as neurons connect with one another. This is only possible because the central nervous system is in constant dynamic flux, which enables it to respond and adapt to changing requirements.

The more learning experiences we undergo over the years, the more neural connections we develop in the brain. This does not only happen when we learn something brand new – like a foreign language or a computer program – but even when we do routine work or play our favorite games. The already established neural connections just multiply as we repeat similar mental processes. That is why most tasks become easier to master over time, which is what learning is. This process is called “neural redundancy,” meaning that many neural connections become redundant through repetition – but not obsolete because when some connections get damaged or degenerate, others take over and continue to function in their place. In other words, the more “redundant” connections we develop over a lifetime through constant learning, the less likely we will lose our skills and abilities as we age.

So the question arises whether we can avoid the decline of our mental capacities by, let’s say, learning Mandarin, reading philosophical books or mastering programming software? Not if you start late, scientists say. Being mentally active from early on and throughout life, not just when you reach old age, is what makes the difference, according to Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley. What you do at 40 or 50 is more important than what you take on at 75.

“Older people seem to have less efficient brains [than younger people] and have to work their brains harder,” said Dr. Jagust in an interview on the subject with the New York Times (3/8/2012). “People who stay cognitively active may be able to use their brains more efficiently,” he added.

Does it then still make sense to strive for mental fitness when you are already approaching retirement age or even later? Within limits, yes, Dr. Jagust agrees. Memory usually diminishes with age, even with people who do not have dementia, he said. It’s more about preserving the abilities you have than acquiring new ones, although both go hand in hand.

For those looking for learning opportunities in their later years, there is no shortage of programs offered by universities and colleges throughout the country. And these are not the only options. Educational travel programs are becoming extremely popular among retirees and the travel industry is more than happy to accommodate them.

They say, a good education is wasted on the young – well, it’s certainly not wasted on those who see lifelong learning as yet another fountain of youth. It may not be able to prevent mental decline in the end, but, in the meantime, it clearly does no harm.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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