When COVID-19 began spreading in 2020, most countries reacted by involving heads of state and government agencies, while dedicating billions of dollars and an unprecedented level of personnel and resources to limit the size and consequences of the pandemic. When an increase in the intake of calories and unhealthy food led to the initial rise in the prevalence of obesity above 10 percent in the US in the 1960s, the government and health-care system did very little, as they did when it climbed above 20 percent in the ’80s, 30 percent in the ’90s, and 40 percent in recent years, resulting in over 70 percent of the US population and 2 billion people in the world currently being overweight or obese.
Although even more resources should be dedicated to the prevention and treatment of viral and other microbial diseases, while COVID-19 caused 7 million cumulative deaths since its initial spread nearly four years ago, in 2017 alone 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life-years worldwide were attributable to dietary risk factors. Just like the US, most countries are doing little to implement lifestyle changes that would prevent these deaths.
To make the problem more complicated, the impact of obesity as a risk factor for cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s nearly disappears when compared to that of 30 years of aging, underlining the importance to not only act on calorie intake and diet composition but also on daily length of food consumption (i.e., time-restricted eating), meal frequency, and the periodic use of safe, clinically proven fasting methods. In fact, these dietary interventions can reduce adiposity and cardiometabolic disease and target the aging process by altering the activity of pathways established to regulate repair/regenerative systems and longevity. Notably, the value of delaying aging is estimated to be over $7 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”), over the next 50 years.
The annual one-hour check-up is important but insufficient to solve the obesity epidemic nor prevent disease.
So why did the doctor’s recommendation to “eat an apple and walk a mile” not work? First, because even if followed, it would have very limited benefits. Second, because until lifestyle programs involve a multi-disciplinary team (including a physician, biologist, nutrition expert, psychologist, kinesiologist, etc.) and this team is given sufficient time to implement interventions and is reimbursed, the generic recommendations most patients receive periodically will continue to have limited or no efficacy.
The annual one-hour check-up to detect diseases is obviously important but not sufficient to solve the obesity epidemic nor to slow down aging or prevent disease. The reimbursement of nutrition and lifestyle programs would also have limited potential if not involving a new category of health-care professionals with graduate degrees obtained from accredited universities and institutes that adopt the same high standard as medical schools but that focus their coursework on the role of nutrition, exercise, and other integrative interventions on aging and longevity.
Each of these “health-span professionals” should be focused on the predicted lifelong health effects of the therapy and not only its short-term effects. For example, weight-loss programs are perhaps the most recommended lifestyle intervention by health-care professionals, yet the majority of overweight subjects who lose weight eventually regain it back, making the temporary weight loss futile and potentially detrimental. In addition, health-span recommendations should not only be based on clinical trials or epidemiological studies but on both combined with the understanding of pre-clinical research on aging and age-related diseases as well as the knowledge of the common lifestyle choices adopted by centenarians and other populations with proven healthy longevity advantages.
These professionals will also need novel, effective tools including applications, wearable technologies, and food-based interventions proven to be safe and effective in achieving long-term reduction in aging and disease markers and risk factors. After 60 years of too much unhealthy food, populations with multiple chronic conditions, and sick care, the world can save trillions of dollars and achieve a remarkable life expectancy increase by generating health-span schools, teams, and products and implementing reimbursable longevity programs.