The Role of Diet in Mortality

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

By Rachel Snider

Art by Genevieve Winn

Immortality is fun to think about, while mortality is less so. Whether or not we choose to consider the implications, we all are mortal, meaning we all will die in the foreseeable future. When looking at life as a finite quantity of time, the quality of that time becomes precious. Though quality is inherently subjective, most individuals would agree that independence and health are key components to having a quality life. Taking care of the body we live in is one way to enhance the time we have here. Consuming appropriate nutrition is one major way that we can influence our health, and we can begin now and continue working on it every day. A recent study by Li et al. shows just how much of an influence a healthful diet can have on individuals.


These researchers studied the effect of a diet made up solely of hemp and “bitter-vegetable” (Sonchusoleraceous) on lifespan and healthspan. The diet was modeled after the hemp and bitter-vegetable heavy diet of the inhabitants of Bama, China. The researchers were interested in assessing the influence of diet on lifespan and healthspan because the Bama society as a whole has a longer life expectancy than that of the areas surrounding.


Mice were used as the test subjects in this study and were separated into two groups: the experimental group of mice was fed the hemp based diet, and the control group of mice was fed a standard western diet, one high in fat and carbohydrates, with sucrose, milk fat, and casein as the main components. The control mice were less healthy at all time checkpoints, by all of the measures of health. The health markers that the researchers used were learning and memory as well as swim speed (through the Morris Water Maze Test), coat appearance, liver and spleen histology (fatty acid profiles), insulin resistance, antioxidant levels, gut microbiota, and expression of aging-related and anti-ageing genes among other indicators. Additionally, by the time only 20% of the control mice were left alive, ALL of the mice on the hemp based diet were alive and appeared healthy. Ultimately, they found that the mice on the hemp based diet experienced increased longevity and decreased senescence (signs of deterioration associated with ageing) when compared to the control mice on the western diets.


The researchers propose that the health benefits seen with the hemp based diet are largely derived from the favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, as well as the high fiber content of the diet. Hemp contains high levels of omega-3’s, which can can improve cardiovascular health and often lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. Once consumed, the body breaks down omega-3’s into DHA and EPA, which act as prostaglandins which aid in the control of blood vessel constriction and dilation (a function that progressively worsens with a poor diet). While omega-3’s are hard to find outside of hemp and fish, omega-6’s are more prevalent, especially in a meat and dairy rich diet (i.e. a western diet). Unfortunately, there has been recent concern that individuals who follow a typical western diet may consume too many omega-6’s, which could have negative effects on health. In terms of the high fiber content of this particular hemp based diet, the bitter vegetable is the main contributor. Fiber is necessary for proper digestion and helps to stabilize blood sugar levels.


In conclusion, compared to the mice on the western diet, the mice who consumed a hemp and fiber rich diet had a significantly longer lifespan and healthspan (the length of time they were healthy before experiencing senescence). This study displays one way in which we can dramatically influence our health through our diet, and hemp is not the only way. There are copious other studies on how different foods impact health. One just has to take the time to learn what the research says about diet, and then they have the power to improve the overall quality of of their life (and even potentially extend the length of it!). What’s more is that if everyone in a society were to face their mortality and learn to truly value the quality of their life, then they could reap the same benefits as the community of Bama, China - longer, healthier lives. To highlight the practical side of a healthy community, if the US was to increase the health of its population, health care spending would drop dramatically. This would allow money that would have been spent on preventable disease treatment to be spent in other governmental areas that need improvement. A healthy individual means a happier life, and a community of healthy individuals means a more effective community: a win-win!


References:


Li, X. Y., Liu, Y. H., Wang, B., Chen, C. Y., Zhang, H. M., & Kang, J.X. (2018). Identification of a sustainable two-plant diet that effectively prevents age-related metabolic syndrome and extends lifespan in aged mice. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 51, 16-26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.09.003

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