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Published December 26, 2008, 12:00 AM

Research yields answers to aging

The world contains pockets of people who reach advanced years while somehow staying active and healthy.

By: Jane Ahlin, The Forum

The world contains pockets of people who reach advanced years while somehow staying active and healthy.

They are known as “Blue Zones,” and researchers have discovered that residents of places like Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, share a number of common denominators:

  • They put family ahead of other things.
  • They don't smoke.
  • They eat a plant-based diet.
  • They maintain moderate physical activity.
  • They stay socially engaged, no matter their age.

That information gibes with what Dr. Julie Blehm, an internal medicine physician at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo, recently learned when she attended a lecture given by an expert on longevity.

In the quest for healthy longevity, diet is critical, said Blehm, who is also associate dean for the southeast campus of the University of North Dakota Medical School.

“There is no doubt that eating right – fruits, vegetables, low-salt – helps people live longer, because it decreases hypertension and coronary artery disease,” Blehm said.

“Whether it actually makes them look younger, I don’t think you can guarantee that,” she added.

Blehm said the jury is still out when it comes to the efficacy of certain supplements in fighting aging.

While scientists have proven antioxidants are key to increasing life in fruit flies, “they haven’t necessarily been able to prove that in humans,” Blehm said.

On the other hand, she said there is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids – found in foods such as fish oil – are important.

Studies also suggest that restricting caloric intake may prove valuable in slowing the aging process.

“Not so that you starve to death, but people who do that (avoid calories) tend to live longer and healthier,” Blehm said.

She said studies that look at caloric restriction in monkeys find the animals live longer and are more active, “because they’re constantly looking for food.”

Studies also suggest that people on low-calorie diets produce their own antioxidants, which may be more effective at reducing inflammation in the body than supplements, Blehm said.

But as researchers come up with more reasons to adopt certain lifestyles, getting people to pay attention remains difficult, she said.

“In today’s world those are not easy things to do,” she said.

“Food is so abundant. It’s so easy to get in a car. It takes more time to walk. How do you convince people it’s worth all of that?

“My personal opinion is, if you can get ’em to do it for a month or two, they start feeling better,” Blehm said.

In her years as a doctor, Blehm said she has known several patients who, after losing 30 or 40 pounds, were so pleased with the results they never went back to eating too much.

But sometimes more is better. She cited vitamin D as one example.

“Vitamin D clearly has more beneficial effects than we once thought,” she said, adding that in the past the recommended daily allowance was 400 international units.

“Now, it should be more like 2,000,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555