Eat and exercise your way to a long, healthy life
When Preston Estep walked into a meeting room at Tsinghua University on a recent sunny afternoon, he looked lively despite his busy travel schedule in China. Estep is the director of gerontology of Harvard’s Personal Genome Project, a study being conducted by the medical school of the university.
Estep, who spoke in Shanghai two days prior to Beijing, was to do a presentation on the influence of diet not only on physical but on mental longevity.
A recent study shows that deaths due to Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia rose more than threefold between 1990 and 2010. Deaths due to Parkinson’s around the world doubled during the same period.
“These diseases appear to be increasing in frequency at every age,” Estep wrote in his recent book Mindspan Diet, a Chinese translation of which is now available.
For him, people’s minds and memories are the basis of all our thoughts, wisdom, feelings and relationships, and are thus “humanity’s most valuable treasures”, so dementia for him is the greatest threat to people. He uses the word “mindspan” to refer to mental longevity.
Estep, about to turn 56, looks younger. He attributes this to his diet that makes him not only look younger, but also “feel younger”.
Following a diet that will not only make people live longer, but also have a clear mind in old age is the theme of Mindspan Diet, he says.
Estep wrote the book due to his experience of having to “live through the progressive mental decline of grandparents on both sides of my family”.
Estep says about 30 years ago, his grandmother began to show signs of dementia before she died a few years later.
He remembered that in the last years of her life, she used to eat a cereal with high iron content.
Scientists found a link between iron and neurodegenerative diseases years later, he says, but at the time red meat had already been associated with shorter life spans and cardiovascular diseases.
As a result, he minimized the amount of red meat he ate.
While the primary motivation for writing the book was to help people enjoy their lives, Estep says, he wanted to deliver a message to readers that genes are really important for longevity, but “not in the way that people normally think”.
“It’s not like they just set the program. They (the genes) age you at a specific rate. (But) it is extremely important to know your genetic variants, to decide what your diet and other environmental factors should be. Then you can set them to complement your particular genetics to achieve physical and mental longevity. So we can control how slow or quickly we age,” he says.
As he puts in the book, currently, most experts agree that genes are responsible for between 20 and 35 percent of extreme longevity, and the rest is due to environmental fac- tors, such as diet, sleep, mental stimulation, mood and exercise.
“It’s critical that we don’t think that there is a specific fixed diet that’s best for all of us,” he says of food.
“We need to know our genetic variants to find out what kind of diet suits us to live a long life, physically and mentally,” he adds.
People can get this informa- tion through genetic tests. Besides, he emphasizes that it is also very important to test one’s blood iron level.
In the book, Estep focuses primarily on iron that is found to be associated with neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.
He says genetic evidence implicates iron when it comes to Alzhemier’s because all the most important genetic factors in the disease are involved in iron binding and transport, and all those genes are regulated by iron.
He adds that high iron levels in the brain cause the depositing of bits of protein that try to transport iron out of brain cells when the iron level is too high. And the depositing of the protein is what furthers the progress of Alzheimer’s.
Further, he says that Alzheimer’s and cancer have become the most-feared diagnosis in the United States. And doctors may not even tell the patient or the family about the diagnosis because it is incurable.
“You can slow the onset, you can delay the onset, you can even prevent the onset, and you can slow progression with the mindspan diet,” he says.
For years, Estep and his team have examined diets in areas where people enjoy the longest lifespans and mindspans around the world — Japan and the Mediterranean — to discover their secrets and give dietary suggestions in the book.
For example, the book suggests that people should consume less red meat, sugar and food enriched with iron, and it adds that people can drink tea, coffee or red wine to lessen the intake of iron.
In the second half of the book, Estep offers cuisines from areas where people tend to live longer.
As for his own diet, Estep says he does not follow a strict pattern. He typically eats a lot of Chinese and Mediterranean food.
Chinese food has the nutrient composition of Japanese food, but the flavor is better, he says.
We need to know our genetic variants to find out what kind of diet suits us to live a long life, physically and mentally.” Preston Estep, author,
A Chinese translation of Preston Estep’s Mindspan Diet.