The Columbia Valley may be taking its first tentative steps to becoming the next of the planet’s Blue Zones – places on earth where people live the longest.
The effort to take the Valley in this direction is being spearheaded by Dr. Keith Weber, who for almost a year now has been holding monthly lifestyle medicine seminars. The two-hour talks focus on what causes inflammation in the body, how inflammation leads to diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease, and the evidence that these common diseases are preventable – and in some cases – even reversible. Although there are many causes of inflammation, and many lifestyle options, the primary focus of the seminars is on nutrition, and how healthy lifestyle choices can have a profound effect on people’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Dr. Weber is not alone in his efforts, and is indeed one of an increasing number of health practitioners who are focusing on preventative strategies and lifestyle prescriptions for diet and exercise. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study — a massive and comprehensive research endeavour that began almost three decades ago and to date involves some 1,800 researchers across 127 countries — diet is the top cause of death and disability in North America, and tobacco is second.
“In terms of research and public knowledge, diet is today where tobacco was 50 years ago. We are now starting to accumulate research that shows that certain foods that have long been considered staples — that are still considered staples — are not essential and may be potentially harmful,” said Dr. Weber. “Smoking, stress, environmental toxins, and genetics also play a role in disease. But genetics, for instance, is like the bullets in the gun – and lifestyle determines whether you pull the trigger or not. If you’ve got poor genetics and an unhealthy lifestyle, well, that’s like having a loaded gun with an itchy trigger finger – always a dangerous combination.”
“When looking at the most common causes of death and disability across North America, aside from trauma, most are either directly or indirectly lifestyle diseases,” Dr. Weber told the Pioneer. “Heart disease or stroke, for instance, when you take these diseases and look at the root causes, research continuously shows the impact of our daily environment and lifestyle choices.”
He pointed out that there are several simple, safe, and affordable lifestyle modifications that can prevent more than 90 per cent of heart disease, citing research such as the Lancet published Interheart study. Dr. Weber stressed that although “nobody has to make any of these changes, these are lifestyle choices, and it’s your life. Knowledge is power. Know what the science says is optimal, so that informed choices can be made when it comes to the health of ourselves and our families.”
Dr. Weber became interested in the effect of diet and lifestyle on health more than a decade ago. “Even in general or rural medical practice everybody has a special area of interest. For some doctors it’s delivering babies, for others emergency medicine, surgery or geriatrics. Nutrition, and more recently regenerative medicine, is the area that interests me the most,” he said. “It’s pretty standard advice to hear from a doctor ‘exercise more and eat healthier’. That’s great advice, but what does the research say is the best way to do it?”
He elaborated that diet and lifestyle are increasingly implicated in diseases that previously have been considered genetic conditions, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Research has linked these diseases with atherosclerosis, the hardening or narrowing of arteries (in the case of Alzheimer’s, the arteries in the brain) as a result of cholesterol and plaque accumulation in the blood vessels. “If you looked at the cerebral arteries of people with Alzheimer’s disease and compare them to the arteries of people without Alzheimer’s, there is a stark contrast,” said Dr. Weber. “If blood flow is restricted to the muscles of the heart, you get angina. Restricting blood flow to the brain results in dementia. It is the same disease, it’s just happening in different parts of the body. You cannot live one way to protect the heart, another to prevent cancer, and yet another for brain health. You can only live one way, but what is good for the heart is also good for the brain.”
Dr. Weber has done about a dozen seminars so far, reaching a total of 200 people. “If I can reach about 10 per cent of the Valley population, statistically that’s the threshold at which changes can be seen at a community level,” he said, adding his ultimate goal is to hopefully kickstart the Valley into becoming the next Blue Zone.
These ‘longevity hot spots’ initially sprang to public consciousness more than 10 years ago after scientific demographers identified five areas around the world (the Japanese multi-island prefecture of Okinawa; the Italian island of Sardinia; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; the Greek island of Icaria; and the Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California) where people statistically live exceptionally long lives, enjoy dramatically lower rates of disease and health issues, and report markedly higher level of happiness than the general population. In addition to better health metrics, these communities also showed economic growth as they become desirable places to live and vacation.
“If we can unite the community with a common goal of health, the Columbia Valley may one day be one of planet earth’s new longevity hotspots,” said Dr. Weber.
The seminars run about once per month, usually on a Wednesday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Invermere Public Library. The seminars are free to attend, but space is limited to 25 to 30 people, so those wishing to attend are advised to book a spot in advance by calling Chisel Peak Medical Clinic at 250-341-6900.
The next talk is scheduled for Wednesday, May 29th.