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Lifestyle More Important than Genes for Longevity

How long you live is usually up to you. Extensive research show that most people who live to be 100 have never had any one else in their family also live to be 100. Longevity researcher James W. Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute in Germany feels that longevity is only three percent genetic and 97 percent environmental. Compare that to factors that govern how tall you will be, which are more than 80 percent genetic.

For most people, living to 90 or 100 requires a healthful diet, daily exercise and avoidance of exposure to life-shortening infections and toxins. Centenarians virtually never have diabetes or arteriosclerosis, the most common causes of death in North America today.

One of the best ways to compare the effects of genetics and environment on lifespan is to study twins (Twin Research, December 1998). The Danish Twin Study showed that a woman whose twin sister lives to be 100 has a four percent chance of living that long (the general population has about a one-percent chance). The Swedish Twin Registry Study followed 3,656 identical and 6,849 same-sex fraternal twins. By analyzing the age of death of twins born between 1886 and 1900, the authors found that longevity is determined a maximum of one-third by genetics and more than two-thirds by environmental factors.

Certain genes have been found to shorten or extend life, but reports on these genetic variations show that they are rare and exceptional. Paul Lichtenstein of the Karolinska Institute reported a gene called APO E4 that shortens life by carrying cholesterol into arteries to form plaques, increasing heart attacks and dementia. There is also a long-life gene called CETP-VV that prevents heart attacks and dementia. People who have CETP-VV have high blood levels of the good HDL cholesterol and large particle size cholesterol that prevent heart attacks.

However, most of the diseases that shorten life are caused primarily by environmental factors. The greatest killers in North America (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia) share the same primary risk factors: • being overweight, • not exercising, • not eating enough fruits and vegetables, • eating processed meats and red meat, • smoking, • drinking alcohol to excess, • storing fat primarily in your belly, and • lack of vitamin D. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of suffering debilitating disease and dying prematurely.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Are low-carbohydrate diets harmful?

You get calories from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. When you restrict carbohydrates, you replace the lost calories with protein or fat. Researchers analyzed questionnaires from 85,000 women from the Nurses' Health Study and 45,000 men from the Health Professionals' Follow-Up Study (Annals of Internal Medicine. September 7, 2010). From a 20-year follow up, they found that a diet that replaces carbohydrates with animal proteins and fats that are associated with increased chances of dying earlier and death from heart attacks and cancer. On the other hand, replacing carbohydrates with plant protein is associated with a slightly decreased death rate, and death from heart attacks.

I do not recommend low-carbohydrate diets because most people replace carbohydrates with animal proteins and fats that are associated with increased risk of premature death. A low- carbohydrate diet will also limit your ability to exercise intensely. Carbohydrates (particularly sugar) are the principal fuel for muscles during exercise, so a avoiding carbohydrates will limit how long and how hard you can exercise.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Is there scientific support for claims that pomegranate juice treats heart disease, prostate cancer and impotence?

No! Pomegranates are a perfectly healthful food, not a medication. The Federal Trade Commission recently charged a Los Angeles-based company with making "false and unscientific claims" in their advertising.

It is true that eating fruits and vegetables is healthful. However, no single fruit or vegetable has specific health benefits that cannot be attributed to other foods in their class. Instead of looking for magical health foods or supplements, eat a diet based primarily on plants, with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and seeds.

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Recipe of the Week:

Try this delicious and beautiful creamy soup:

Sweet Potato Bisque

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book - it's FREE

June 21st, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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