Life & Science

The End of Health As We Know It

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If quizzed on the best path to health, most people might rattle off advice repeated so often it's accepted as gospel truth. Supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are important; where they are grown is not. Rigorous early-morning workouts provide lasting all-day effects. Marathons and endurance races help you live longer.

But none of those statements — not a single one — can be backed by clinical research and meta-analyses of scientific literature, said author-physician and DLDsummer15 speaker David Agus in his talk. In his quest for a global definition of health, the professor of medicine and engineering at University of Southern California discovered an overwhelming pattern in his research: so much of what we think is true about personal health is not. Let's start with expensive vitamins and minerals. After an extensive review of previous studies, researchers relying on meta-analyses have come up empty-handed for evidence that supports the daily intake of any vitamin or mineral. (Only one trial so far, Agus added, published earlier this year, has shown significant support for a derivative of vitamin B3, but only in people who have battled skin cancer.)

Meanwhile, consumers are told to “stay on the edges" of grocery stores — usually this is where the fresh produce, fish, and meat is on display — and to buy fruits and vegetables indiscriminately year-round. But Agus encourages shoppers instead to get to know their grocers, to ask questions about where and when food was harvested, and when buying fish, to consider where in the ocean that fish lived. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables begin breaking down the moment they are picked, Agus explained, while fish can be extremely beneficial or extremely harmful, depending on the risk of mercury levels. The deeper and bigger the fish, the more mercury it's likely to contain.

And then there's movement, something many of us don't think enough about. Agus stressed the importance for all of us of moving throughout the day. We now know that sitting for most of the day could be as harmful as smoking cigarettes, he said, even if we squeeze in a solid workout that bookends the day. At the same time, super-athletes run the risk of exercising too much for too long. Recent studies have shown that marathon runners can suffer from the same affliction that ails couch potatoes: a build-up of plaque in the arteries and therefore an increased risk of heart disease. Neither extreme — not enough movement or prolonged movement — is good for us.

There's good news. While writing his book A Short Guide to a Long Life, Agus uncovered health habits that have stood the test of time. One tip is that when you eat might be just as important as what you eat. For much of our existence, humans have followed a predictable eating schedule: eat a large meal after a successful hunt, eat some leftovers in the morning, and then dig in for another dry spell without food. Recent research suggests that people who “graze" throughout the day and into the night have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight and metabolism when compared with counterparts who eat at regularly scheduled intervals. Another tip relies on a substance that Hippocrates once observed as able to provide relief from fever and pain: aspirin. Anyone over age 40 could benefit by taking one baby aspirin (75–81 milligrams) daily. Doing so "reduces the death rate of cancer by 30 percent, heart disease by 22 percent, and stroke by 19 percent," Agus said in his talk.

Much of the advice from Agus' research is meant to be incorporated into a common-sense lifestyle where moderation rules above all else. But, he added, there's something else. The end of health as we know it has only just begun. In the next few years, healthcare and our approach to health will be virtually unrecognizable. The biggest change, he said, will be the ability not merely to diagnose disease, but to prevent it.

For cancer, the revolutionary tool is proteomics, said the world-famous oncologist who treated Apple's Steve Jobs. This -omics word, meaning the study of human proteins, was first written about in 1994, and has been gaining momentum ever since. Just as the Human Genome Project opened up a world of understanding about the human body and diseases, so will therapeutic applications of proteins transform healthcare, Agus predicted. Earlier this year, researchers released a nearly finished map of all of human proteins, long chains of amino acids necessary for the structure and function of tissue and organs in the body. If DNA is your ingredient list, explained Agus, protein is what's going on in a moment in time.

Applied Proteomics Inc., a company that Agus co-founded in 2007, is currently working to develop a protein diagnostic test for colon cancer. About 50,000 people in the U.S. die each year from colon cancer; yet if caught early enough, this disease can be treated, in some cases even prevented. Agus placed some of the blame for the great losses to this disease on the inconvenience and discomfort of colonoscopies — and on the inefficiency of using them as a diagnostic tool. A protein test could entirely do away with the routine use of this laborious procedure, he said, by requiring only a drop of the patient's blood to determine whether polyps were present. The colonoscopy itself could then be reserved for what it does best: removing actual polyps.

This protein test, and other radical breakthroughs that once belonged only to the realm of science fiction, will bring dramatic changes to healthcare over the next few years, Agus said, changes that give us all hope. As an example of what's on the horizon, he described how in the last year three separate U.S. universities have successfully reduced and reversed aging in mice. We're at an inflection point, he concluded, of rapidly accelerating progress, and to benefit from these changes, we will all have to change — as individuals, societies, governments. If we do, we can succeed wildly. If not, we may be left behind. Luckily for us, this is what we as humans do best: adapt.

Mentioned in this article

David agus bw
David Agus
University of Southern California Center for Applied Molecular Medicine
Professor of Medicine and Engineering
University of Southern California Center for Applied Molecular Medicine
Beverly Hills, CA