Old age and the limitations of a healthy lifestyle

Old age and Alzheimer'sA nice op-ed in the NY Times touches on our belief that living a healthy lifestyle guarantees a long and able-bodied life. The author, Susan Jacoby, speaks specifically to the issue of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Members of the “forever young” generation — who, unless a social catastrophe intervenes, will live even longer than their parents — prefer to think about aging as a controllable experience. …

Contrary to what the baby boom generation prefers to believe, there is almost no scientifically reliable evidence that “living right” — whether that means exercising, eating a nutritious diet or continuing to work hard — significantly delays or prevents Alzheimer’s. …

Good health habits and strenuous intellectual effort are beneficial in themselves, but they will not protect us from a silent, genetically influenced disaster that might already be unfolding in our brains.

Jacoby cites a review of knowledge about Alzheimer’s sponsored by the National Institute of Health. (emphasis added)

Several dietary and lifestyle factors and medications also have been linked to a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease; these include adequate folic acid intake, low saturated fat consumption, high fruit and vegetable consumption, use of statins, light to moderate alcohol consumption, educational attainment, cognitive engagement, and participation in physical activities. Current smoking, never having been married, and having low social support are all reported to be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the quality of evidence for the association of these factors with Alzheimer’s disease is low. No consistent associations were found for other vitamins; fatty acids; the metabolic syndrome; blood pressure; plasma homocysteine level; obesity and body mass index; antihypertensive medications; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; gonadal steroids; or exposures to solvents, electromagnetic fields, lead, or aluminum.

The obsessive pursuit of health is unhealthy

For Alzheimer’s, there are so many preventive options to choose from, just in the area of diet alone. The slightest possibility of prevention makes headline news. Rarely do we encounter the follow-up studies that report the lack of an association between seemingly healthy habits and the avoidance of Alzheimer’s. There’s a pattern here that’s a staple of consumer society: consume the news, consume the latest preventive strategy, consume more news, move on to the latest and greatest new strategy — ideally by purchasing a new product or service.

Health is an ideology: a set of ideas that establishes goals, creates expectations, and determines our actions. An ideology provides a way to understand the world and ourselves. It’s only natural that we want to exert control over our health, our susceptibility to illness, the length of our lives. Our anxiety about health – amplified by constant discussion in all available media – makes us vulnerable to the latest promise of the rewards of a healthy lifestyle. The obsessive pursuit of health, however, is itself unhealthy.

Related posts:
Healthy lifestyles serve political interests
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
The tyranny of health then and now
“Tyranny of health” on KevinMD
The tyranny of health


Image: Sydney Morning Herald

Susan Jacoby, Real Life Among the Old Old, The New York Times, December 30 , 2010

Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline, NIH State-of-the-Science Conference, April, 2010


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