Certain individuals are blessed–we say this colloquially in reference to complicated genetic dispositions–with a clean bill of health and rarely need to see their doctor. Other people seem to always be sick or are afflicted with a chronic disease that has a profound effect on how they live. However, while it’s seemingly impossible to control the nature side of who we are, the nurture side is completely within our control.
While the food pyramid of old has come and gone, there still are resources for people to use regarding establishing a healthy diet. The USDA created a website to help guide individuals and families on their respective journeys to a healthier lifestyle. Myriad health resources exist, and it’s difficult to keep up with the seemingly constantly changing nutritional recommendations.
Still, though difficult to keep track of “what’s healthy,” it’s imperative for people to at least try, as it can significantly impact health outcomes. A report from the World Health Organization noted that although geographic location and economic factors are important determinants, the incidence of chronic diseases is significantly shaped by nutrition.
“Nutrition is coming to the fore as a major modifiable determinant of chronic disease, with scientific evidence increasingly supporting the view that alterations in diet have strong effects, both positive and negative, on health throughout life,” said the authors of the WHO report.
What the Research Says
Since part of what is within our control is what we eat, and researchers from the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) claim that diet may be vital in combating chronic diseases, according to the Seattle Times. These researchers believe that shaping dietary intake, specifically for women – targeted because they often control what their children eat – could significantly reduce chronic illness incidence rates in the future.
“Chronic diseases are not the inevitable lot of humankind … we could readily prevent them, had we the will to do so,” wrote Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., director of both the Moore Institute and the Center for Developmental Health at the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at OHSU, and David Barker, MD, Ph.D. “Protecting the nutrition and health of girls and young women should be the cornerstone of public health. Not only will it prevent chronic disease, but it will produce new generations who have better health and well-being through their lives.”
The researchers believe that the diet of a mother during pregnancy can affect the future of the newborn, according to the Times. While one’s diet throughout one’s life can impact their health, Thornburg and his colleagues think that epigenetics – a link between our genes and our environment – can influence whether or not people activate the genes that make us predisposed to chronic illnesses. The OHSU researchers believe that diet is a main trigger for some of these epigenetic issues, and something that is completely within our control.
Discover Magazine has also covered the impact of epigenetic expressions on future generations, as it cited research from McGill University, Duke University and several renown European institutions that claimed the diet of parents can have an effect on their yet-to-be born children.
More than Just Diet
While diet can impact the incidence of chronic illnesses in both the living and yet-to-be born, other things can also affect how likely we are to get a certain disease or affliction. Exercise is important, but something even more basic can be extremely beneficial to one’s bill of health: walking.
This basic exercise wasn’t touted by some green-living blog or a first-year yoga teacher; rather it came from the apex of the U.S. health community. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the U.S., issued a call to action to promote walking as a way to improve the nation’s health. In this call to action, Murthy outlined how walking can reduce the incidence of, or reduce illness from chronic disease, and specifically that this type of physical activity can lessen the severity of these conditions.
Unlike other, more involved exercise, walking doesn’t require special skills, equipment or areas. This may be obvious to some, but people often overlook the benefits of a brisk, or even slow, walk. Age is immune to this form of exercise, according to the call to action, as walking has such a limited risk of injury when compared to vigorous-intensity activities.
Younger people can avoid chronic illnesses by eating better and exercising. And even if people already have chronic diseases, it’s still possible to manage these illnesses to a point where day-to-day life is less impacted. Technology exists to help patients keep in constant contact with their medical care teams, allowing them to track vital signs and send messages to if anything seems off. Tools like those available on an iPhone – the health dashboard – are helpful, in that they provide people with a tool to monitor their daily exercise patterns, even providing monthly and yearly comparisons. More complicated and targeted technology exists, such as what’s available from Welkin – tools that connect patients with their nurses and doctors to share data and questions regarding dietary intake, health questions and lifestyle choices.