Two weeks ago, Science Magazine featured a special section on Disease Prevention. Two articles featured cheap, easy and widely effective measures that lower risks of all major diseases of old age: they talked about daily aspirin and increasing blood levels of vitamin D.
Daily baby aspirin is associated with lower risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and several kinds of cancer. Even better, ibuprofen does all this and also lowers risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Blood levels of vitamin D are associated with lower incidence of most cancers, heart disease, and dementia. Vitamin D protects against brittle bones and auto-immune diseases and dramatically lowers the incidence of cold and flu. Also “asthma, diabetes, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and cognitive decline.” In one study, children whose daily milk was fortified with vitamin D caught half as many colds as children without supplementation.
Side effects for aspirin are limited to a small segment of the population that experiences stomach problems – non-fatal and temporary; for vitamin D, the downside is largely hypothetical. Still, the medical community is not ready to recommend either D or aspirin as a prophylactic for an aging population. Why not?
Is it because of the Hippocratic commitment to “do no harm”? I think not. After all, America is awash in expensive drugs we don’t need and millions of unnecessary surgeries are performed each year. Is it because there’s no capitalist lobbying engine to support these cheap, unpatentable supplements? Yes, that’s some of it.
But there’s also a source of medical conservatism that’s built into the culture of “natural”. We’re reluctant to tamper with nature because “mother knows best”. The body is a finely-tuned machine, and it is much easier to do harm than good if we tamper with our natural metabolism – so the story goes.
It’s only since the 1960s that the culture of “natural” has been dominant. Before that was an age when modern science was held in reverence, when tonsils were removed routinely because doctors saw no use for them, and when scientifically-designed infant formula was prescribed in preference to breastfeeding.
Now, I’m as crunchy as the next guy. Organic foods are tastier and more nutritious, don’t expose us to pesticides, and contribute to sustainable agriculture as a bonus. I’m all for it. But the point that most people (and most doctors) still don’t realize is that a natural diet is useless against diseases of old age.
That’s because aging itself is “natural”. Providing a natural life style can help prevent many things from going wrong with our bodies. But aging isn’t something that goes wrong. Aging is something the body is designed to do. The body is self-destructing on a schedule. If we want to slow down aging, we can’t do that by being good to our bodies and supporting them to do their best. We’re going to have to disrupt the body’s program, to thwart the pathways of self-destruction.
The paradigm that brought us natural foods is this: Modern man lives in an environment full of stresses and toxins to which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were never exposed. We are not evolved to deal with a diet of high fructose corn syrup and GM soy and beef laden with growth hormone.
Absolutely. I avoid eating all these, and hope that you do as well. But these toxins have nothing to do with the reason we get heart disease or dementia, and they’re only weakly related to cancer risk. The reason that we get heart disease and cancer is that, after a certain age, self-destruction is programmed into our genes. Our bodies’ immune systems begin to shut down. Inflammation is dialed up and begins to attack healthy tissue in our joints, our arteries, and our brains.
The insults suffered from environmental toxins of modern life are like a drop in the ocean compared to the damage that the body suffers from its own programmed self-destruction.
Doctors are loathe to prescribe asprin and vitamin D to the aging public because they’re not part of our “natural” heritage. This thinking is deeply flawed, because it derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of what aging is.
I don’t know whether super-high levels of vitamin D are “natural” to our evolutionary past, and I don’t think it matters much. And there’s nothing at all “natural” about aspirin. But there’s a huge body of epidemiology that points to multiple benefits from both vitamin D and aspirin, particularly in the diseases of old age. My counsel is to go for it.
My bottom line recommendation is this: If you’re over 50, take a daily baby aspirin or ibuprofen, unless it gives your stomach trouble. And ask to have your vit D levels assayed the next time your doctor draws blood. Our bodies vary widely in the ability to absorb vitamin D, and to process it into the di-hydroxy form in which it circulates in the blood. Conservative doctors are recommending blood levels of 50, while advocates say that we might benefit from levels over 100. Most American are under 50, and a quarter or more are under 25. You may be in range just from spending time outdoors and eating fish, but you won’t know until you get results of a blood test. Personally, I have increased my daily intake to 15,000 IU just to get my blood levels into the recommended range*.
* An IU of vitamin D is tiny. The standard dose of 400 IU is only 10 micrograms, which is a barely-visible speck. Even mega-doses come in small pills.