Posts Tagged ‘Lifestyle’

The “Slow” Diet

July 13th, 2013 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson

The Mediterranean diet is praised by its proponents as one of the healthiest eating styles around. Dominated by fruits and vegetables, it is considered well suited for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, cancer and even mental decline. What gets rarely mentioned, however, is that it is not so much the dietary principles but rather the underlying lifestyle that sets the Mediterranean diet apart. For example, not rushing things too much and enjoying a leisurely clip are just as important as the food itself. And that does not only apply to food preparation or consumption but to life in general.

The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is inspired by many, often ancient, culinary traditions from southern European and northern African countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s not a specific cuisine but rather the product of centuries-old struggles for survival in lands that can be harsh and barren.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Mediterranean population never had it particularly easy. The region is by no means a bountiful breadbasket. The landscapes that surround the sea, mostly mountainous peninsulas and islands and narrow coastal plains, do not easily yield a livelihood to their inhabitants. The food supply comes mostly from small farms that have been operated by the same families for eons. Industrial farming methods are neither practical nor welcome.

“For all the sun-drenched ease we associate with the Mediterranean – in reality little more than a vacationer’s fantasy – there is an undertone of harshness to the region’s beauty,” writes Ayla Alger, co-author of “Mediterranean – The Beautiful Cookbook” (Harper Collins, 1994). “It is indeed remarkable that agriculture has flourished at all in the Mediterranean, the result not only of skillful cultivation but also of the peasant tenacity and hardiness of its peoples.”

Still, despite all the difficulties (or, perhaps, because of them), there has always been a deep appreciation for nature’s gifts. People’s relationship to their food is profoundly personal. Those who don’t farm themselves buy locally grown produce at the market and prepare their meals at home from scratch. Hardly anyone ever eats alone. Having food is a communal affair that involves families, neighbors, friends and visiting guests.

By contrast, our lifestyles demand ever-greater speed and efficiency in nearly all aspects of our lives, including our mealtimes. Many of us skip breakfast or grab something from the coffee shop on the way to the office. We work through lunch and watch TV or spend more time on computers and other devices while having dinner, which is usually take-out or something microwavable.

Fast food, an icon of Western culture, is the quintessential opposite of the home-cooked family meal. It is available almost anywhere and at all times; it comes ready to eat; it can be consumed alone; it doesn’t require a table or even a plate; and its non-descript taste never varies. Instead of bringing us together, it allows us to keep to ourselves, we don’t even have to get out of our cars if we don’t want to. As such, it doesn’t just impact our physical health but our entire well-being, including the quality of our familial and social life.

We must pay more attention to the consequences of our constantly accelerating world, warns Jay Walljasper, a contributing editor to National Geographic and author of “All That We Share.”

“The human time world is no longer joined to the incoming and outgoing tides, the rising and setting sun, and the changing seasons,” he says. “Instead, humanity has created an artificial time environment punctuated by mechanical contrivances and electronic impulses.”

Our eating habits are a direct reflection of our lifestyle that is becoming increasingly unsustainable, says Walljasper. Feeding ourselves has become just one of the countless activities we engage in day in and day out. It has no special meaning. There is no attention being paid, no gratitude felt. It’s just consumption.

It wasn’t always like this – and it doesn’t have to continue this way. “People want to slow down because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control,” he says. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would accept pay cuts if they were given more time off in return.

There is also a growing hunger for getting back to basics. More young people now consider farming – the small kind – as a career option, and also because they want to do something meaningful with their lives. And their sentiments are widely shared. The popularity of farmers markets all over the country speaks for itself.

The desire to slow down and take more time for things that really matter can become a reality at any moment and without much ado. Walljasper describes his own “conversion” to a slower-paced existence like this: “I’ve started the “Slow Is Beautiful” revolution in my own life – right in the kitchen, scaling back my busy schedule to find more time for cooking good meals and then sitting down to enjoy them in a festive, unrushed way with my wife, son and friends. Even cleaning up after dinner can offer a lesson in the pleasures of slowness, as I learned a while back when our dishwasher went on the fritz. […] I’d put some jazz or blues on the stereo and sing along, or just daydream as I stacked dishes and glasses on the drying rack.”

Who says you can never go home again?

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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 Healthiest Places to Live in the U.S.

June 8th, 2013 at 5:17 pm by timigustafson

How healthy you are depends largely on the diet and lifestyle choices you make. It also matters how educated and financially secure you are. And where you live – not only in what kind of neighborhood but also in which part of the country – plays a role as well.

If you are looking for the most health-promoting environment in America today, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the place to be, according to a survey conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), titled the American Fitness Index™ (AFI).

The report, which has been issued annually since 2007, measures the state of health and fitness at the community level throughout the U.S. Among the considered factors are opportunities to exercise and be physically active, including access to safe sidewalks and bike paths, athletic facilities, playgrounds, public parks and so on.

“What Minneapolis does so well – they are firm believers in the ‘if you build it, they will come’ attitude,” said Dr. Walter Thompson, a professor at Georgia State University and chair of the AFI advisory board in an interview with NBC. “They spend a lot of money on their parks. They spend $227 per capita on their parks. […] So you can see they put their money where it needs to be to create a healthy environment,” he added.

By contrast, the least proactive places in terms of fitness promotion on the AFI list spend about $62 per capita on parks and other recreational facilities.

Runner-ups were Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, California. Seattle, Washington, came in eighth.

The existence of public parks is an especially important indicator because it provides people with the lowest hurdle preventing them from exercising. Unlike many sports facilities such as gymnasiums, swimming pools, basketball courts, running tracks or golf courses, parks don’t require memberships or have limited opening hours.

When you provide the environment for people to exercise, there is no excuse to be a couch potato, said Thompson. And that translates to lower personal health indicators such as obesity and diabetes as well as poor lifestyle choices like smoking.

Minneapolis was also found to be especially conducive for the health of seniors. According to the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Ranking Senior Report, more older people report being in very good to excellent health in Minnesota than in all other states. Also, the poverty rate among the elderly is lower here than elsewhere.

The aspect of senior health in our communities is of growing importance because the baby boomer generation, a large segment of the population, is about to retire. It is also a group of people plagued by considerable health problems, many due to less-than-perfect lifestyle habits. Creating environments that allow for the betterment of their health status is in all our interest and should be given much attention.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Healthy You Are Also Depends on Where You Live.”

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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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Even Small Amounts of Alcohol May Cause Cancer, Study Finds

March 15th, 2013 at 3:05 pm by timigustafson

Moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages can have a place in a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The question is what counts as moderate. Two drinks for men and one drink for women per day are permissible, says the agency. Excluded from these recommendations are children and adolescents, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, and individuals who cannot control their alcohol intake, are on certain medications, or plan to drive or operate machinery.

All that is well known and widely accepted. But a new study found that even smaller amounts of alcohol than what is deemed acceptable by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans may be too much when it comes to preventing certain diseases, including cancer. In fact, having just one drink per day can increase the risk.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) determined that alcohol-related cancer accounted for three to four percent of all cancer deaths in the United States annually and that even light drinkers were at an increased risk.

Well over half a million Americans die from cancer every year. Of these, approximately 20,000 cases are linked to alcohol, according to the study.

We talk a lot about tobacco and poor diets, but alcohol use is a factor that is often missed in the discussion over preventable diseases and deaths, says Dr. David Nelson, director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the NCI and lead author of the study report. While the majority of cancer-related deaths from alcohol occurred in people who consumed substantially more than what is considered moderate drinking, Dr. Nelson’s team found that 33 percent of the diseased had no more than one alcoholic drink per day on average.

Although only 18 percent of men and 11 percent of women are heavy drinkers, meaning they have more than the recommended daily amount on any given day, it is still a significant health concern, said Patricia Guenther, a nutritionist at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and author of a separate study on the issue, in an interview with Reuters

Among men, 31 to 50 year olds consume the most alcohol, according to the study. Among women, the heaviest drinking takes place between ages 51 and 70. The researchers did not investigate the reasons for the differences in age.

Besides cancer, other well-known health risks from alcohol use are high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, pancreatitis, nerve damage, depression and dementia.

Moderate alcohol use has long been considered as harmless if not beneficial. Especially red wine is thought of by some as heart healthy. But conflicting messages like these only confuse consumers, says Dr. Nelson.

“The purported benefits of alcohol consumption are overrated when compared to the risks,” he says. “Even if you take into account all the potential benefits of alcohol, it causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents worldwide.”

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Almost Half of All Cancer Cases May Be Preventable.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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To Prevent Heart Disease, Follow a Mediterranean Lifestyle

February 27th, 2013 at 12:46 pm by timigustafson

Southern Europeans are among the healthiest and longest living humans on the planet, according to studies on quality of life and longevity in different parts of the world. Considering the economic crisis that has taken hold of the region over the past few years, this seems almost a paradox. Experts have long suspected that good eating habits as well as a slower-paced lifestyle are largely responsible for these advantages.

A recently completed study from Spain has now confirmed some of these assumptions. It found that people who followed what is called the “Mediterranean diet” could lower their risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.

As the name indicates, the Mediterranean diet is based on the culinary cultures of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It consists mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and also wine with most meals.

Even by comparison to Northern Europeans who have a similar or even higher standard of living, Southerners show overall lower rates of heart disease. One of the reasons for this may be that olive oil and nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which are more conducive to maintaining artery health than saturated fats in butter and lard, more commonly used in the north.

For the study, over 7,400 participants between the ages of 55 and 80 were assigned slightly different diet regimens. All were at an increased risk of developing heart disease at the outset of the study because of other illnesses such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as weight problems, family history and poor lifestyle choices. Surprisingly, those who were given olive oil and a selection of nuts in addition to their regular food intake did best in improving their health condition.

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet seem also applicable to age-related mental health. In a separate study, researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that participants who followed the dietary guidelines most strictly could cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40 percent. The reasons are similar to those for heart disease. Experts believe that uninhibited blood flow to the brain, enabled by good heart functions and unobstructed arteries, is crucial for the prevention of mental decline.

Of course, it would be naive to assume that dietary improvements alone would make us altogether healthier and let us live longer. For instance, to prevent heart disease, it is not only important to eat right but also to exercise regularly, manage stress, get enough sleep and also have loving relationships in one’s life. We affect our health not only by the way we eat but also how we behave, said Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. It’s not just one thing that will make us well but a “spectrum program” of choices, as he calls his comprehensive approach to disease prevention and better health.

One of the most important aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle is having close ties with family and friends. Sharing meals, taking time for conversation, celebrating special occasions surrounded by loved ones – all of that contributes to people’s well-being.

“Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed and isolated – and I think that’s a real epidemic in our culture – are three times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community,” he said in an interview. “In part this is because when you are feeling lonely and depressed, you’re more likely to smoke, overeat, drink, work too hard, abuse yourself in different ways, as a way of just getting through the day.” In the end, he added, what matters most is your overall way of living.

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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A Season to Slow Down

December 16th, 2012 at 2:57 pm by timigustafson

In principle, I guess, one can get addicted to anything. I’m not just talking about drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or food. People can develop addictions to other people, their work, shopping, television or the Internet. The latter seem especially prone to cause addictive behavior. In this past year, the media outlets of every kind have been selling us “the news” like junk food, thereby creating yet another addiction. “News junkies suffer from withdrawal symptoms after the election,” I read the other day in the paper. I wonder why?

Certain addictions are hard to avoid in our culture where more is always considered better. We take it for granted to think of progress exclusively in terms of “growth.” So we find ourselves in a never-ending chase of things that supposedly make our lives more comfortable and more exciting. We live in larger homes, drive bigger and faster cars and surround ourselves with more possessions than any generation before us – and yet, there remains this nagging feeling that we don’t have enough to be content.

Inevitably, our relentless “pursuit of happiness” comes at a steep price. It’s called stress. True, most people suffer from stress and anxiety at one time or another. That’s life, some would say. Yet, what we are seeing today seems somewhat different. More and more people exhaust themselves, just by trying to keep up. They are reaching the end of their rope. Doctors and psychologists have already come up with new terminology to describe the stress symptoms they find in their patients with increasing frequency, using terms such as “time stress,” “chronic overscheduling” or “time poverty.”

To be sure, having goals and ambitions does not automatically make anyone sick. There is such a thing as “good stress” where people can thrive on a certain amount of pressure and even derive pleasure from it. But being constantly pressed for time without relief is not healthy, no matter how we may rationalize it. In fact, the idea that a “normal” life has to be filled with constant activity is a concept that should not remain unquestioned. Why should it be “the norm” that we always work harder, earn more money, buy more stuff, increase our standard of living? Why is having the newest and the latest to be considered a must? Why can’t we imagine living without gadgets that did not even exist a little while ago? Why don’t we ever feel that we have accomplished enough and that we can enjoy what we already have?

The Holiday Season is supposedly a time when we stop the rat race and focus on family, friends and all the good things that really matter in life. Of course, most of us end up doing the exact same thing as last year and the year before. We get caught up in the Holiday rush, no matter how much we wish it was different this time.

There are better ways to deal with our perpetual time crunch – there must be! Merely wishing life was different is not enough. All lifestyle changes, great and small, require will power and determination. Here are a few ideas that may help things along:

First: Let’s establish some rules. No matter how much pressure we may receive from the outside, let’s not forget that we are responsible for the ways we spend our time. Only we can find ways to organize our time better and use it more wisely. Instead of running around like crazy trying to put out fires all day, let’s set up a healthier routine and stick to it.

Second: Let’s set priorities. Let’s ask ourselves what value we get in return for our time and effort. Is our only reward more money to buy more stuff? So what if we don’t have all the latest fads? Those will be outdated and obsolete tomorrow. Instead, let’s focus, perhaps with a sense of gratitude, on what we already have – and not just in material terms.

Third: Let’s include regular down-time in our schedules, so we can recover and recharge our batteries. There are benefits in doing nothing once in a while. Allowing ourselves to slow down should not make us feel guilty. So, let’s switch off the cell phone, get off the Internet, stop listening to the News. Instead, let’s go for long walks, find a quiet place where we can spend time alone, meditate or write a journal – these are the gifts we can give to ourselves that will make for a truly Happy Holiday Season.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Don’t Get Crazy Busy!

December 8th, 2012 at 5:22 pm by timigustafson

Whenever I make phone calls or send off e-mails to family members and friends to touch base and inquire about their well-being, the answers are almost always the same: “busy,” “crazy busy,” “insanely busy,” “busy, busy, busy.” I know full well that I’m expected to respond with something like “that’s good,” or “that’s a good problem to have.” Being able to say that there is plenty going on in our lives, even if it drives us nuts, is almost considered an asset in our culture, although it’s made to sound more like a burden.

The holiday season may be an especially challenging time when we try to get many extra chores squared away in addition to our already overloaded schedules. But, let’s face it, being swamped with work and activities has become a way of life for many of us all year round. It is so much part of us, it would be hard to get off the treadmill, even if we tried.

“Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and author of “Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life” (Ballantine Books, 2006).

While being active and engaged can be a positive experience, losing sight of what we want and what’s important to us should not be the outcome. “Being too busy […] can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Much of today’s hurry, bustle and agitation has been created, or at least accelerated, by the arrival of communication technologies allowing us to stay connected with the outside world at all times. We have even adopted a term that originated in the computer industry to describe our responses to our many pressing demands: “multitasking,” says Christine Rosen, editor at The New Atlantis who writes about the social and cultural impact of technology. “Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible,” she says.

In recent years, scientists have begun to pay more attention to potentially adverse effects of the multitasking phenomenon on people’s health, not only in terms of stress management but also with regards to mental health. When neurologists studied brain functions through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they were able to observe the inner workings of multitasking as blood flowed to different brain regions whenever test participants shifted their focus. Multitasking, or task-switching, as the process is sometimes called, requires time and energy, and if too much of it is required at any given time, a “bottleneck” effect may occur while the brain struggles to respond simultaneously to several stimuli, according to research conducted by Dr. René Marois, professor at the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is that the human brain can only focus sequentially, not simultaneously, on different tasks at hand. It must disengage from one before engaging in another. This limits it to a finite amount of goals it can pursue before its capacity maxes out.

“For example, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his findings.

Yet, many of us, especially when we are good at it, take pride in our ability to get lots of stuff done within a short period of time, and find it very rewarding. The question is, at what price?

Besides giving us toxic stress, making us sick, causing accidents and errors and turning us into rude and irritable people, the greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents us from controlling our own lives,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Chronically overworked and overtired, we often don’t have enough energy left for doing the things we really want, such as spending more quality time alone or with loved ones. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can question our behavior from time to time in terms of what we want to achieve and how important our goals really are to us. The holiday season can be a good opportunity to re-examine our priorities.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “A Season to Slow Down.”

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Enhancing the Quality of Life Wherever We Can

October 31st, 2012 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson

For the longest time, there has been nothing but bad news coming from Greece: An economy in complete shambles, high unemployment, drastic tax hikes and cutbacks in social services, unrest in the streets, a society at the brink of collapse. And yet it is precisely in this region where people seem to live longer, healthier lives than about anywhere else on the planet. What’s their secret?

Based on years of research, Dan Buettner, best-selling author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons in Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic Society, 2008), and two of his colleagues found that the inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaria were reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do.

“Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia.” By contrast, Buettner says, almost half of American seniors show signs of Alzheimer’s by the age of 85.

Despite of its remoteness and rugged, mountainous landscape, the island has been known for centuries for its health-promoting climate and soothing hot springs. A slow-pace, leisurely lifestyle is still prevalent among the people here who savor tasty meals and long afternoon naps. Time seems to stand still – most villagers don’t even wear watches.

Many of the young people who once left the island in search of better paying jobs in the cities have returned, disillusioned with their fading prospects. Because of high unemployment rates, some have no choice but to move back in with parents and grandparents, but others see the lifestyle of their forbearers as a viable alternative.

Besides tourism, small-scale agriculture is the only industry on Ikaria. When it comes to food supply, most families are self-sufficient. Gardening and tending to livestock fills the day that starts late in the morning and ends with dining and socializing with family, neighbors and friends.

The latter is as crucial as the diet the Ikarians adhere to. The social structures might turn out to be even more important, says Buettner. The cultural attitude that honors and celebrates old age keeps seniors more engaged in their communities. Studies have shown that the concept of retirement, common in industrialized countries, actually reduces life expectancy. Such “artificial punctuations” in life, as he calls it, deprive retirees unnecessarily of a sense of purpose and meaningful existence.

Another puzzling phenomenon is that Ikarians also live longer than other islanders in the region who share a comparable environment. Obviously it’s not one specific thing that sets these people apart, says Buettner, but rather a host of “subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work” such as a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, lack of stress and time pressure, daily physical activity through walking and manual labor, and being part of a functional community. In other words, it’s the high quality of life that results in the extraordinary longevity.

Obviously, not everyone can move to an idyllic island and grow vegetables, milk goats, bake bread and snooze the afternoon away. But what we all can do is to stop once in a while and consider whether our days really have to be as hectic and exhausting as they often are. Perhaps we would be better off if we took regularly inventory and separated what’s necessary from what just crept in on us.

We don’t have to aim at living forever. Longevity itself doesn’t have to be the primary goal. Being around a few years longer is not worth the effort if we’re only getting more of the same. A better quality of life, on the other hand, is something we can always strive for at any time and anywhere.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Living Long, Living Well

August 29th, 2012 at 5:47 pm by timigustafson

Americans may be less optimistic about the future in general than they once were, but a solid majority still hopes to enjoy a long life. In fact, longevity is considered by most as part of a good life, on par with health, prosperity and loving relationships.

60 percent expect to live at least until they’re 80. 40 percent think 120 to 150 years could be feasible within their own lifetime due to further advancements in medical and biological technology. And one percent believes that death could eventually be eliminated altogether, according to a survey conducted by David Ewing Duncan, a science writer and author of “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens If It Succeeds.”

Considering that two thirds of the population are currently dealing with weight problems and a host of lifestyle-related diseases, this may be wishful thinking for many. But the fact is that the average life expectancy has indeed dramatically increased over the last century due to improved hygiene, diet and medical care. In 1900, people could expect to live just under 50 years. In the year 2000, it was nearly 77. The average lifespan was lengthened between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

What’s even more stunning is that our chances of living longer seem to go up all the time. How so? “Because the more time you spend in the world, the more time the world gives you,” says Ted C. Fishman, author of “Shock of Gray” (Scribner, 2010). “For every hour we live,” he claims, “the average human lifespan increases between eleven and fifteen minutes. Every day sees the average lifespan grow another five hours.”

Of course, that doesn’t apply for everyone across the globe, Fishman admits. “Your odds are better if you have avoided the obesity epidemic and live in a place that enjoys good health care, education, and freedom from war and terrible poverty.” It also helps if you can manage to stay mentally fit and don’t suffer from memory loss and cognitive decline. A loving family, a circle of friends and other supportive social surroundings add to your chances.

Unfortunately, many of these important factors for longevity cannot be taken for granted. Baby boomers, now entering retirement, are rightly worried about their prospects when it comes to their financial security, health needs and social life.

“It does not bode well for the baby boom generation at all,” warns Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor for public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies longevity, in an interview with Reuters. More recent studies show that life expectancy gains in the U.S. have actually flattened out since the 1960s. Despite of dramatically increasing expenditures for health care, many Americans live with chronic diseases that are left insufficiently treated, especially among the uninsured and those with limited coverage. One study concluded that poorer citizens have on average a shorter lifespan of up to five years than the more affluent.

Obviously, money can’t buy everything and life remains an uncertain enterprise no matter how rich you are. For the rest of us, there are plenty of opportunities to take care of our health and well-being by eating right, exercising, etc. (you know the drill) – and for this, it’s never too early to get started.

Researchers found that physical fitness achieved during middle-age can lower the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure in later years and may be associated with compression of morbidity at old age. Compression of morbidity is what many health experts consider the optimal outcome of aging. The idea is “to delay the onset of age-related disease and inevitable decline without worrying about extending life,” writes Dr. Andrew Weil, author of numerous best-selling health books, including “Healthy Aging” (Knopf, 2005). Not longevity itself should be our first concern, but the quality of life we have as long as we are around, he says.

This reminds me of the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. who died last year at the age of 56, when he spoke of the inevitability of death at his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

“No one wants to die,” he said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. […] Your time is limited,” he ended, “so don’t waste it…”

Even the longest life can be a waste if it’s not brought to its full potential. Even the shortest life is rich and fulfilled if it’s lived well.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The High Cost of Living Longer.”

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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Following a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Can Add Years to Your Life

March 25th, 2012 at 3:48 pm by timigustafson

Do you observe a healthy diet, abstain from smoking, watch your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and do you exercise at least for 30 minutes three times a week? If so, your chances of dying from a heart attack are much lower than those of your contemporaries with less health-promoting lifestyles.

Researchers found that taking a few simple, commonsense steps to protect your heart can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease more substantially than previously thought.

For a recently completed study that followed almost 45,000 adult Americans, scientists looked into data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and linked them with a database of deaths over three time periods, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010. After almost 15 years of follow-up, the survey showed that participants who adhered most closely to the diet and lifestyle recommendations of the American Heart Health Association (AHA) had a 76 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 51 percent lower risk of all-cause deaths than those who complied less. The details of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA – 3/23/2012).

Unfortunately, the researchers also found that only a small minority of Americans follows all or most of the AHA guidelines for heart health.

“Everyone knows that the heart health of Americans is dismal. Yet, despite of trying hard (really hard), I fail more than 90 percent of the time to get patients to change their heart-healthy behaviors,” laments Dr. John Mandrola, a cardiologist. “Nine in ten patients return just as fat and sedentary as they were at the time of my previous lecture on heart health.”

The problem is not that Americans lack access to information that prevents them from taking better care of their heart health. “Getting people to know [the facts] is not the issue, rather the issue is the implementation of the plan, says Dr. Mandrola.

Heart disease is the most common cause of deaths in the U.S. today, ahead of cancer and stroke. One and a half million Americans die every year from the disease or complications connected to it. While it is true that heart disease can be caused by inherent risk factors such as family history or simply by aging, poor lifestyle choices are to be blamed in most cases. Excess weight, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol abuse and insufficient physical activity are all commonly known culprits. Most heart patients have several of these risk factors to deal with – and they tend to “gang up” and aggravate each other’s effects.

Heart disease usually shows no specific warning signs. You have to look at the numbers to find out about your heart’s health condition. “You can and should make a difference in your heart health by understanding and addressing your personal risks,” says Dr. Susan B. Shurin, director at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institute of Health (NIH). For any successful treatment of heart disease as well as for prevention it is crucial to regularly monitor cholesterol levels – LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides –blood pressure and, of course, body weight.

Americans tend to rely too quickly on medications when they encounter heart health problems. In many cases that may be a necessary first step, but the goal should always be to achieve risk reduction by better diet and lifestyle choices. “Good Nutrition and lifestyle are the cornerstones of health,” says Dr. Leslie Cho, director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic. “Pills are supplements. They’re not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle.”

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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Signs of Memory Loss Found in Younger People

January 8th, 2012 at 3:25 pm by timigustafson

Loss of memory and other cognitive functions may start much earlier in life than previously thought, according to a clinical study from England. A modest decline of mental abilities such as reasoning and problem-solving was found in participants who were only in their forties.

For the study, researchers tested 7,000 men and women over a period of 10 years for memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension. The results showed an average of 3.6 percent decline in reasoning skills in both sexes at the age of 45 to 49. 65 to 70 years old men showed on average a steeper decline than women of the same age group – 9.6 versus 7.4 percent.

Since the youngest participants were 45 years old when the study began, it is possible that the deterioration of brain functions may commence even earlier, according to Dr. Archana Singh-Manoux, the leader of the research, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population in France and the University College London. The results were recently published in the “British Medical Journal.”

Previous studies on age-related decline of mental health have primarily focused on people in their sixties, seventies and beyond. By limiting ourselves to a narrower scope, we may not yet have gotten the entire picture, according to Dr. Singh-Manoux. A decline of mental capacity doesn’t suddenly happen at old age. That variability exists much earlier on, she says.

Researchers still need to learn more about the risk factors that lead to progressive cognitive impairment. There is strong evidence that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is closely related to heart disease, which is typically caused by weight problems, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

We probably underestimate how affected the broader population may be, says Dr. Singh-Manoux. The participants in this study were drawn from a relative homogeneous pool of office workers who were well educated and, for the most part, enjoyed a comfortable life and good health. This is not necessarily a representative profile at a time when so many suffer from obesity and other lifestyle-related health issues.

Although the causes of mental decline are not yet fully understood, experts recommend a number of measures that may not prevent but at least slow down the process. These include regular physical exercise, healthy nutrition, weight control, intellectual activity, avoidance of smoking and alcohol/drug abuse, stress reduction, sufficient amounts of sleep as well as social activities and supportive relationships.

A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic concluded that engaging in stimulating mental activities through reading, discussion, playing challenging games and other interactions can help decrease the risk of cognitive impairment significantly. This does not only apply to the elderly. To prevent even mild cognitive impairment (MCI), it is important to “exercise” the brain at any age.

“This study… demonstrates that aging does not need to be a passive process,” says Dr. Yonas Geda, a Mayo Clinic neuropsychiatrist and lead author of the study report. “By simply engaging in cognitive exercise, you can protect against future memory loss.”

To what degree we actually hold the key to our mental health remains to be seen. Preserving our physical health as best as we can is certainly a good strategy. Baby boomers have long been spending millions to save their sagging skin, fix their crow’s feet and plump their lips. As they reach old age, they finally are beginning to turn to brain boosters to fight memory loss, writes Virginia Anderson of WebMD in an article titled “Seven Brain Boosters to Prevent Memory Loss.” In fact, the process may begin much earlier in life and people need to pay attention before it’s too late.

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

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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