I’m going to tell you a secret– something that the smartest, most cutting edge health professionals all know and have been talking about amongst themselves for a very long time. This information isn’t widely known or accepted yet, but it will be—at which point we will all be shaking our heads looking back on this period in medical history and saying “What were we thinking?”
Get ready to be shocked:
High cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease.
Yes, you read that right, and before you recover completely, consider this: Fully half the people with heart disease have “normal” cholesterol and fully half the people with elevated cholesterol are healthy as a horse.
(Full disclosure: I’m going to be talking about cholesterol, statin drugs, and heart disease a lot in the next couple of months. It’s such an important subject that cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD and I have written a book about it that will be out in October. I hope you’ll read it. More on that in future blogs.)
Talk to people about living longer and living free from heart disease (or any of the other conditions that rob us of life and vitality) and you’ll invariably hear someone say, “Yup, gotta do something about my cholesterol”.
Why are we so darn worried about cholesterol when it has practically nothing to do with living long and living well?
Well, for one thing it’s easy to measure. For another, lowering it is an extraordinarily profitable business. Zocor and Lipitor, two cholesterol-lowering drugs, remain in the top ten of every Forbes list of best-selling drugs, and bring in over 30 billion a year for their makers.
And for a third, the idea that high cholesterol causes heart disease is so embedded in our national consciousness that to dislodge it, even with the considerable amount of emerging scientific evidence that the cholesterol hypothesis is simply wrong, would be a massive undertaking. Heck, we’re still buying “low-fat” cookies and margarine based on information that’s been out of date for 10 years.
So, if not cholesterol, what should we be paying attention to if we want to live longer and live healthier?
The Four Killers: The Real Dangers to Your Heart
I’ve identified four major things that age the body and rob us of vitality. They are so insidious and so systemic that I’ve named them “The Four Horsemen of Aging.” They are:
Inflammation, oxidation, sugar and stress will kill you. Cholesterol won’t.
Inflammation is a silent killer, a contributor to every major degenerative disease from Alzheimer’s to diabetes, from heart disease to cancer. It comes in two flavors- chronic and acute. Acute inflammation is the one we’re all familiar with—it’s what you feel when you stub your toe, get a toothache, pull a muscle or have an allergy attack.
But chronic inflammation is the killer and it flies beneath the radar. It’s your body’s response to small but continuous insults like exposure to toxins, bad diet, stress, cigarettes and the like, and it causes damage to your vascular system. In fact the body uses cholesterol to try to patch up that damage—so blaming cholesterol for the damage is like blaming a St. Bernard for an avalanche!
We can do a great deal to fight inflammation by eating anti-inflammatory foods (fruits and vegetables abound with natural anti-inflammatories like quercetin and other flavonoids and by taking anti-inflammatory supplements (top of the list: omega 3’s!)
Oxidation is another process that ages us. Oxidation is what you see when apple slices left in the air turn brown; that happens inside our bodies every day, the result of attacks on our cells and DNA by rogue molecules called free radicals. Diets high in antioxidants go a long way towards fixing the damage.
Sugar is a risk factor for almost everything you don’t want to have—causes something called glycation. which happens when excess sugar in the bloodstream “gums up the works.” Sugar gloms on to protein in the blood, making it too sticky to pass through small capillaries. It’s one reason why diabetics often have amputations in the extremities like toes and feet and problems in areas like the eyes and the kidneys which are served by small, narrow blood vessels. High blood sugar is far more damaging to the body and to life than cholesterol. And it’s relatively easy to “fix”.
Finally, stress is one of the biggest killers on the planet, and, like sugar, far more of a danger to us than cholesterol ever was. Stress hormones age (and shrink) an important area of the brain called the hippocampus which is involved in memory and thinking.
Stress can exacerbate nearly any disease, not to mention that it can slow (or even prevent) recovery. And stress actually makes you fat- the major stress hormone, cortisol, causes the body to store weight around the middle.
In the “Blue Zones”- areas around the globe where people routinely live to 100 in extraordinary health with all their faculties intact- no one worries about their cholesterol or their saturated fat intake. They don’t have to.
Their lives have built in stress-reducers like extended families and community events; they eat natural whole food diets filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. And their sugar intake is naturally low, so they don’t have to worry about it gumming up the works and destroying their health.
Aging may be inevitable, but unhealthy aging is not. If you know what to do you truly can have an extraordinary life well into your 9th and 10th decade, filled with vitality, joy and purpose.
Best of all, it’s not all that hard to do.
The payoff is worth it.
Just ask the people in the Blue Zones.