Fasting to Live Longer

Q. I am so blessed and have so much to live for: an amazing wife, two successful adult children, five grandchildren,  and a home on the beach in Florida that we visit frequently. I am aware that people are living longer these days. I want to do what I can to maximize my lifespan and keep my brain healthy. Are you aware of changes I can make in my diet to increase my longevity and keep my memory sharp for as long as possible? Thanks for your help!

A. Thank you for reaching out to me. I am so glad to hear about all of the blessings in your life, and can understand why you’d want to maximize your lifespan. My situation is almost identical to yours, except I have only 1 grandchild so far! But I also have 4 cats, so they count.

It’s true that we’re living longer these days. In fact, the average lifespan in the United States is 81.1 years for women, and 76.1 years for men. So, what can we need to do to enhance the length and quality of our lives even more? Researchers worldwide are pursuing various ideas, but for Mark P. Mattson, chief of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, the answer is a simple change in diet. Mattson and other researchers believe that the key to a better old age may be to reduce the amount of food on our plates or do what is called IF, which stands for Intermittent Fasting, an age-old practice that has recently been getting a lot of new buzz based on lots of new research being revealed about the benefits of this type of dietary practice. I first learned about this just about six months ago, when I watched a documentary about the topic that’s free on Amazon Prime; there’s also lots of free movies like this one on Youtube, and tons of information about IF on the internet, one of the best being this website by Dr. Jason Fung. Since watching and reading all this information, I’ve adopted an IF lifestyle using a 16/8 method – fasting from 8pm till 12 noon every day, which basically just means skipping breakfast. I even did a full 3-day fast and loved it – felt more energy than ever.

But back to the research. Mattson’s research and findings from others around the world has shown that fasting intermittently, or severely restricting calories on a periodic basis, may actually make us healthier and smarter than if we get the standard three square meals a day we’ve long been told are the road to optimal health.

To hopefully live long and without disease, consider these variations on the fasting diet that have been proven to have benefits for seniors (but, be sure to check with your doctor first!):

5:2 diet: This weekly plan has you eating just 500 to 600 calories on two nonconsecutive days and consuming a normal diet the rest of the week. Mattson has published two studies comparing the 5:2 diet with daily calorie restriction, and his findings were that overweight women on the 5:2 regimen tended to lose more belly fat and less muscle mass than those simply cutting their calories. However, they didn’t lose any more weight than normal dieters. Women following the diet also showed greater improvements in blood sugar regulation. Health benefits resulting from the 5:2 diet include weight loss, reduced insulin resistance and decreased inflammation. Blood lipids may also be improved.

Every-other-day diet. This is similar to the 5:2 regimen, but with the every-other-day diet, you choose high-fiber and high-protein foods for your fast-day meals to help to stave off hunger. Similar to those on the 5:2 diet, people on the every-other-day plan lose a higher percentage of fat and lower percentage of muscle than those on typical calorie restriction diets. They also show significant reductions in LDL (bad) cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin and triglycerides (blood fats).

Prolonged nighttime fasting. Also called time-restricted feeding, participants refrain from eating for at least 13 hours per day including overnight hours (16 hours is better and pretty simple, as I mentioned above). A 2016 study of more than 2,400 women, published in JAMA Oncology, found that prolonged nighttime fasting may have protected those with early stage breast cancer against recurrence. Women on this plan who fasted 13 or more hours per day not only reduced their risk of developing new tumors by 36 percent, they also slept longer and had improved blood sugar regulation.

A short fast: If you don’t eat for 10 to 12 hours, you begin to mobilize fat from your fat cells, which are converted to compounds called ketones. “Ketones are a really good thing for your brain,” Mattson says, pointing out that ketogenic diets are used for people with hard-to-treat epilepsy.  Even during short fasts, nerve cells are more active in the brain, researchers are finding. “Also, the cells in the brain respond adaptively to what may be considered the mild stress of not having food for an extended period of time,” Mattson says. “Brain cells do this by increasing their ability to cope with stress, he says: “And, we think, to resist age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

Exercise/fasting: Another thing many don’t realize is that fasting mimics exercise in how it benefits the brain. In both exercise and fasting, the brain increases production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that encourages new brain cells to thrive. Several studies have shown that BDNF plays a critical role in learning and memory and that these levels decline in the human brain during aging. By boosting these levels through exercise or fasting, older adults can almost trick the brain into thinking it’s younger.

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

Whether or not you’re fasting intermittently, fruits and vegetables can help your brain. (But you may need to beware of lectins that are found in may fruits and veggies – we’ll cover the topic of lectins, and the lectin-avoidance diet, in an upcoming article.)

Studies show brain benefits in people who eat berries. In addition, berries not only fight free radicals – they can also combat cholesterol. And, berries have a lot of soluble fiber.

Not fond of berries? Brightly colored cabbage also has the same brain-healthy phytonutrients. The cheapest, more available and most convenient source of the compound is purple and red cabbage, such as in coleslaw. It lasts for a week in the fridge. It makes a nice, delightful crunch, and with color as an addition to any meal. Cabbage has the most antioxidants per dollar, beating out things like acai berries and other superfoods.

Mattson suggests that plants containing chemicals with bitter or hot tastes – such as caffeine (see our recent article on the alleged benefits of coffee), or chemicals in vegetables like broccoli, or curcumin (in the curry spice turmeric) – may also help build brain resilience.

Just as you should ask your doctor or a nutritionist before you decide to fast to stave off disease and maximize your health and longevity, it is crucial to contact your lawyer to plan for your future and for the future of your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors and their loved ones by preserving dignity, quality of life, and financial security. As always, if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning or Estate Planning, or had your older documents reviewed in the past several years (or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care), please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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