This doctor reversed the heart disease. Now he wants to do it for Alzheimer’s

“I think our unique contribution has been to use these very high-tech, expensive, cutting-edge scientific measurements to prove how powerful these very low-tech, low-cost interventions can be,” said Ornish, professor. of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“What’s good for your heart is good for your brain and vice versa,” Ornish said. “Previous studies have shown that moderate lifestyle changes can slow the rate of progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So my hypothesis is that more intense lifestyle changes might halt or even reverse the decline.”

The original heart disease study was small – 28 people were in the Ornish experimental group and then followed for five years. Some skeptics criticized the program for its small sample size and said there was no way people could continue following the program’s strict plant-based diet without supervision.
In the Ornish Meal Plan, no more than 10% of daily calories can come from fat. To do this, all animal products, with the exception of egg whites and one cup of skimmed milk or yogurt per day, are prohibited. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes form the basis of the diet, along with some nuts and seeds. Refined carbs, oils, and excessive caffeine are avoided, but up to two cups of green tea per day are allowed.

“It’s low in fat, but it’s only a small part of the overall diet,” Ornish said. “It’s basically a vegan diet, low in fat and sugar, eating foods as close to nature as possible.”

The program also includes one hour per day of yoga-based stress management using stretching, breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques. Strength training and walking or other aerobic exercise are needed for 30 minutes a day or one hour three times a week. Smoking is not permitted.

“There are also support groups,” Ornish told CNN, “not only to help people stay on the diet, but also to create a safe environment where people can let go of their emotional defenses and talk openly and authentically about what’s going on. what’s really going on in their life, warts and all.

“That’s the part that surprised me the most – these support groups are really intimate,” he added. “Sharing things like, ‘I may look like the perfect dad, but my kids are on heroin,’ or whatever. Even with Zoom, they achieve the same level of intimacy in one or two sessions because it there’s such a hunger for that.”

Ornish calls this part of his program “Love More”. He responds to skeptics who wonder why intimacy is such an integral part of a plan to reverse disease by highlighting studies on people who are alone, depressed or isolated.

These people are “three to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely from almost anything” compared to people who say they have a sense of love, connection and community, Ornish argued.

“Why? Partly because you’re more likely to smoke, overeat, stop exercising and other unhealthy things when you’re feeling lonely and depressed,” Ornish said.

Impact on other chronic diseases

In 1993, insurance giant Mutual of Omaha began reimbursing policyholders for the cost of Ornish’s program, making it the first alternative therapy besides chiropractic to be reimbursed by insurance. Medicare began covering lifestyle interventions for heart disease in 2006.

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“And in October 2021, Medicare agreed to cover my heart disease reversal program when done through Zoom, which is really a game-changer,” Ornish said. “We can now reach people in their homes, rural areas and food deserts wherever they live, which will help reduce health inequalities and disparities.”

Over the past two decades, Ornish’s research has shown that the same four-part program can lower blood sugar and heart disease risk in diabetic patients, reduce the growth of prostate cancer cells, improve depression by 12 weeks, reduce “bad cholesterol” by an average of 40%, and more.

“With all this interest in personalized medicine, how come these same lifestyle changes are stopping, and often reversing, the progression of such a wide range of the most common and costly chronic diseases?” asked Ornish.

“Because they all share the same underlying biological mechanisms: chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes in the microbiome, changes in gene expression, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, changes in immune function, etc.”, a he declared.

“And in turn, each of these elements is directly influenced by what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, and how much love and support we have,” Ornish said.

These lifestyle improvements likely alter the body at the cellular level, he said. A 2008 study found that the Ornish program affects some 500 genes in the body via epigenetics, chemical reactions that can turn a gene’s expression on or off.

“After just three months on Ornish’s lifestyle program, research has revealed that a number of genes that regulate or prevent disease are turned on, and the genes that cause many of the mechanisms that cause all these different conditions are disabled,” Ornish said.

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“You’re not technically changing your genes, but you’re changing the expression of those genes with chemical switches, turning them on or off,” he said. “So that means it’s not all in our genes anymore, which makes us victims of our genetic destiny. We’re not victims. There’s a lot we can do.”

Ornish lifestyle interventions have also been shown to lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control longevity, and shorten with age. Ornish did a pilot study in 2013 with UC San Francisco biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on telomeres.

“We found that telomerase, the enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres, increased by 30% after just three months of the program,” Ornish said. “Then we found that people who had been on the program for five years had about 10% longer telomeres, a sign that aging is reversing at the cellular level.”

Will these same lifestyle interventions be enough to slow or even reverse cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias? Time will tell us. Ornish’s study is still ongoing, and while preliminary results look promising, all data must be collected, analyzed, and peer-reviewed before a result can be reported.

“But I believe this is not one diet and lifestyle intervention for heart disease, another for diabetes or prostate cancer, and yet another for prostate cancer. ‘Alzheimer’s. It’s really the same for all these different conditions,’ Ornish told CNN.

“To reverse disease, you need to follow interventions nearly 100%. If you’re just trying to prevent disease, then the more you change, the better you get. But what matters most is your overall way of to eat, to live and to love so that we can all die young as old as possible.”

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