Behind most of the bad things we do to our bodies as adults--eat too much, drink too much, fret too much, veg out too much--are two contradictory ideas we carry with us from childhood. On the one hand, we assume that we are indestructible. And on the other, we think that any damage we inflict on our delicate biological systems can be undone later, when we finally decide to clean up our act.
If the evidence for how wrong the first idea is isn't apparent when you stand naked in front of the mirror, just wait. Or, if you can't wait, compare the ideal human forms represented in, say, Greek statuary with the bodies of the folks queuing up at Disney World or Taco Bell or Ben and Jerry's.
But what about that second idea? What if you eat right, get into shape, drop all your bad habits and start treating your body like the temple the ancients said it is? Is it too late? If you start today, can you repair the damage?
To a surprising degree, the answer is yes. Over the past five years, scientists have accumulated a wealth of data about what happens when aging boomers and slackers decide to turn their lives around. The heartening conclusion: the body has an amazing ability to heal itself, provided the underlying damage is not too great.
The effects of some bad habits--smoking, in particular--can haunt you for decades. But the damage from other habits --especially those that affect the circulatory system--can be largely offset. "At any time you decide to improve your behavior and make lifestyle changes, they make a difference from that point on," says Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). "Maybe not right away. It's like slamming on the brakes. You do need a certain skid distance."
But the skid distance can be remarkably short. Consider these recent dispatches from the front lines of medical research:
Just two weeks ago, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that women who consume as little as 8 oz. of fish a week cut their risk of suffering a stroke almost in half.
Laboratory measurements show that eating more fruits, vegetables and fiber changes the blood's sensitivity to insulin within two weeks, helping decrease the risk of diabetes almost immediately.
Scientists have found that hitherto sedentary 40-year-old women who start walking briskly for half an hour a day, four days a week, enjoy almost the same low risk of heart attack as women who have exercised conscientiously their entire lives.
The day you quit smoking, the carbon monoxide levels in your body drop dramatically. Within a week, your blood becomes less sticky and your risk of dying suddenly from a heart attack starts to decline. Four to five years later, the chance you will have a heart attack falls to nearly that of someone who has never smoked.
Adopting healthy habits won't cure all that ails you, of course. But doctors believe that as much as 70% of all chronic diseases in the U.S.--from diabetes and high blood pressure to heart disease and even some cancers--can be warded off with some timely, sensible changes in lifestyle.
Still, we have our work cut out for us. Nearly 50 million Americans continue to smoke. More than 60% are obese or overweight--20 years ago, it was 47%. One in four Americans gets no regular exercise at all. Perhaps 25% of the populace consumes the recommended minimum of five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The incidence of adult-onset (or Type 2) diabetes, having jumped 33% from 1990 to 1998, climbed an additional 6% in 1999, according to a report released last week by the CDC. Health experts worry that if present trends continue, the incidence of cancer could increase and the death rate from heart disease--which had been leveling off--could reverse itself.
Wouldn't it be great if there were a vitamin or a drug or a fad diet that would protect you? Unfortunately, undoing the damage from a lifetime of bad habits means learning--and sticking with--a whole new set of behaviors. After all, anybody can lose 10 or 20 lbs., and many of us have--over and over again. It's only by maintaining that weight loss, however, that you derive real, lasting benefits.
That's the bad news. The good news is that even small changes can lead to big improvements. For example, doctors for years thought that lowering cholesterol levels reduces the risk of heart attack by shrinking artery-choking plaques. As it turns out, lowering cholesterol levels doesn't change the size of the plaques very much. But it makes them less reactive, thereby lowering the chances that they will rupture. Similarly, even a modest reduction in blood pressure decreases the likelihood that a plaque will burst, reducing the risk of both heart attack and stroke. The payoff can be huge. "It isn't just a matter of living an extra day," explains Dr. James Cleeman, coordinator of the National Cholesterol Education Program at the National Institutes of Health. "Avoiding strokes and heart attacks adds quality to your life."