Dr. Willcox will be speaking at the upcoming HuffPost Hawaii event "The Longevity Principle: Experts Share Hawaii's Secrets for Living Longer." Learn more about it here.
As a geriatrician, the vast majority of my time is spent treating people who suffer from the afflictions of old age. These are almost always chronic in nature -- heart disease, arthritis, cognitive decline, diabetes, and the list goes on. The good news is that most of the ailments I treat can be markedly delayed and largely prevented by a healthy diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors.
However, it's not just a matter of staying away from the French fries.
The right food can be a prophylaxis that can actually thwart illness. The Okinawan people -- who are the longest lived people in the world -- use the term nuchi gusui, which literally means "food is medicine." But modern medicine is just beginning to understand the biochemistry behind the concept of food as medicine. After two decades of research, I believe that the Okinawan diet is a veritable Rx for longevity.
What we've learned is that certain micronutrients found in Okinawan sweet potatoes, turmeric, and marine-based carotenoid-rich foods (e.g., seaweeds and kelp) are particularly potent. Such foods can actually help prevent you from getting ill. By some estimates, 80% of coronary heart disease (CHD) and type-2 diabetes mellitus and 40% of cancers may be prevented by modifying dietary habits (as well as engaging in regular physical activity and avoiding tobacco).
Wouldn't it be great if drug companies came up with a pill or supplement based on this kind of diet that helped prevent you from getting a chronic disease?
Unfortunately, disease prevention doesn't seem to be high on the list for most pharmaceutical companies. It is rare that I read about a drug company working on a therapy to prevent you from getting osteoarthritis, cognitive decline, or diabetes. The path of least resistance is to develop a blockbuster drug that combats a major disease rather than something that prevents you from getting it in the first place.
Fortunately, research on food containing health promoting micronutrients is now front and center among some progressive companies and academia-industry partnerships. This is particularly true when it comes to characteristics that fight oxidative stress and inflammation -- which are key factors for development of chronic disease and other ravages of old age. Oxidative stress is believed to be a principal mechanism of aging. If you can enhance anti-oxidative protection and inhibit free radical production, this goes a long way to protect against oxidative damage.
Consuming the right foods, with the right micronutrients, mitigates risk for many age-associated diseases and, perhaps, modulates the very rate of aging. Thus it's no coincidence that the Okinawans consume home grown turmeric, sweet potatoes and other local foods, including several vegetables rich in marine phytoactive compounds.
Marine carotenoids found in local seaweeds and kelp may be particularly powerful foods. One marine carotenoid in the Okinawan diet that holds particular promise is astaxanthin, a natural product which is available as a supplement, derived mainly from micro-algae. The compound has powerful, broad-ranging anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Research indicates astaxanthin may benefit those suffering from inflammation-related conditions including arthritis and rheumatoid disorders, metabolic disease, as well as cardiovascular, neurological, and liver diseases.
However, one of the most intriguing characteristics about astaxanthin is what is doesn't do. It doesn't have the nasty side effects that conventional anti-inflammatory therapies such as steroids and aspirin (and related compounds) exhibit. Its safety profile is strong. Lately Astaxanthin has become the darling of some "celebrity" doctors, but it isn't some passing fad. Over 1,000 peer-reviewed publications are available on astaxanthin and more than several hundred have been published in just the last three years, reflecting a growing scientific interest.
Astaxanthin is currently manufactured from algae on Hawaii's Big Island by a company called Cyanotech. Quantities are insufficient to meet an increasing world demand, but Honolulu pharma company Cardax Inc. has discovered how to directly synthesize an exact molecular copy of the compound. Once it's available on a world-wide scale, scientists will have access to the large, inexpensive quantities necessary to do clinical trials and look at a host of possible therapeutic applications.
As a geriatrician, I'm particularly interested in Astaxanthin's potential impact on slowing cognitive decline, especially as the Baby Boomer population turns grey and concerns of dementia increase.
The FOXO3 Connection
Astaxanthin has also been shown to beneficially activate the FOXO3 gene -- which is strongly associated with human longevity. Astaxanthin, along with other marine carotenoids such as polysaccharide fucoidan, xanthophyll fucoxanthin have some amazing qualities such as inhibiting cancer growth, fostering reduction in bad cholesterol, and lowering triglycerides.
In a sense these compounds trigger our biological systems into mimicking an ancient survival mechanism called caloric restriction. Caloric restriction has been unequivocally proven to make organisms live longer. It sounds counter-intuitive but the less you eat (up to about 30% less than usual), the longer you live so long as you maintain a diet adequate in macro- and micronutrients. A diet that contains compounds that turn on caloric restriction's biological mechanisms may also make you live longer and healthier.
In other words, if you consume dietary compounds that mimic caloric restriction's biological effects ("CR mimetics"), you can activate the same genes that caloric restriction activates, thus getting the benefits of caloric restriction without the deprivation. Our studies, and those of others, have shown strong support for this.
We've found that Okinawans who eat a traditional diet gained an additional 6% survival time from age 65 (1.3 years) versus other Japanese and an additional 20% survival time (3.6 years) versus Americans. Perhaps most notable is that Okinawans gained almost a decade of additional disability-free life expectancy compared with Americans.
The shorthand is that by stimulating the FOXO3 gene with the right foods and phytonutrients, odds are you will live longer and healthier.
We're still early in the stages of research but the evidence is very promising. We're proving scientifically that the Okinawan expression that "food is medicine" is not just some meaningless platitude.
In fact, it should be taken very, very seriously.