Does diet or climate keep us alive longer ?


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I was reading about the French paradox, namely the French suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats. The French also have the 5th highest life expectancy in Europe, after Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain.

It had been hypothesised that wine consumption is what lowered cardiovascular diseases and increased life expectancy. France has indeed the 2nd highest consumption per capita among Western countries, after Italy. Switzerland comes third. Scandinavian countries, however, are not big consumers.

If we look at the whole world instead of Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia actually have the world's highest life expectancies. These places all enjoy warmer weather than anywhere in Europe. So could the climate be as beneficial as diet ? I had a look at the regional life expectancy data for France, and it was very clear that warmer regions did better than colder regions. If we exclude the Ile-de-France region (Paris), which is first for male life expectancy and second for female, because of its considerably higher GDP per capita, here are the top five and bottom five regions.

Male life expectancy (2006 - highest)

1) Rhône-Alpes : 78.5 years
2) Corsica : 78.2
3) Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur : 77.8
4) Languedoc-Roussillon : 77.5
4) Pays de la Loire : 77.5
5) Aquitaine : 77.4

Male life expectancy (2006 - lowest)

16) Bretagne : 76.2 years
17) Lorraine : 76.1
18) Champagne-Ardenne : 75.9
19) Haute-Normandie : 75.8
20) Picardie : 75.6
21) Nord-Pas-de-Calais : 73.9

The ranking is similar for women.

The climate's influence may have more to do with sunshine than actual temperatures. Alsace is the coldest region of France, but ranks better than the warmer but cloudier North-West. Lower sunshine increases the risk of depression, which in turn messes up with the immune system and overall life expectancy. This may also be why Parisians live longer - because they are less likely to be bored and depressed than people from the countryside.

In addition to the climate, the northern half of France has a butter-based cuisine, while southerners traditionally cook with olive oil. This surely has an incidence on heart diseases, possibly more than wine consumption itself.

Interestingly, the Pays de Loire, which is in the northern half of France, has a high male and female life expectancy. Alsace also does better than other northern regions. Both of them are wine producing regions. But do the French drink more wine because they live closer to the vineyards ? I don't have the regional data for wine consumption, but I doubt it. After all, Switzerland does not produce (much) wine and has the world's third highest consumption. The Belgians and the Danes also drink more wine than, say the Greeks or Australians, who do produce their wine (and Australian wines are among the very best). If it's part of the culture people will drink.
I chose France because it is perhaps the only country in Europe that has a clear-cut difference of climate between the temperate north and the mediterranean south, as opposed to small countries, or bigger ones like Germany, Britain or Sweden, where the weather is not vastly different in the main population centres.

Japan also has huge climatic divergences between cool temperate island of Hokkaidō and the subtropical western half of the country. I found the data for life expectancy in each Japanese prefecture, and although the northern Aomori prefecture indeed has the lowest male and female life expectancy, the overall picture lacks any sort of regional pattern. Male and female life expectancies do not even match most of the time.

The central and mountainous Nagano and Fukui prefectures have the longest average life expectancy. The richer cities of Tokyo and Osaka have average scores. Men in Fukuoka prefecture have one of the shortest national life span, while women have one of the longest. The reverse is true in Aichi prefecture. Why ? I cannot think of any good explanation.

I decided to check the statistics for Italy as well. Climate is not especially better anywhere in Italy, although it does get colder in winter in the north. The length of one's life is not really determined by the region's prosperity. The regional differences are minimal. There is barely one year separating the longest and shortest regional averages. People in Puglia live just as long as in Trento, and those of Sardinia the same as in Piedmont. The only exception is Campania, where life expectancy 1.5 years shorter than the national average for both men and women ! Italy's case is interesting because it shows that people sharing a similar culture and climate (despite all the regional variations for both) have similar life expectancy regardless of regional wealth gaps.

It is strange that Italy should have so little gap between its richer and poorer regions. In Belgium and Spain, the gap is much more marked.

In 2006, Walloon men could hope to live 75.09 years, against 76.90 in richer Brussels, and 78.08 in more egalitarian Flanders - all with similar climate and food. The best evidence that economic wealth plays a decisive role is the provincial discrepancies. Wallonia's richest province (Walloon Brabant) has the highest life expectancy (77.61 for men), while the poorest province (Hainaut) has the shortest (73.71). The gap is huge - almost whole 4 years ! The two provinces are adjacent, and yet the gap is as big as between the French Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. The same phenomenon can be observed in Flanders, but with only one year between the wealthiest and least well-to-do.

In Spain too, people live less long in the poorer regions of Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura, and longest in Madrid, Castilla y Léon, La Rioja and Navarra.
If it comes to France, this might be relevant:
People living in North or cloudy regions, very often are vitamin D deficient, which causes more autoimmune diseases.
People from big cities have faster access to medical services.
Well, climate in Iceland and Sweden is not very similar to Spain's. Same goes with gastronomy.

I don't get correlation.
Well, climate in Iceland and Sweden is not very similar to Spain's. Same goes with gastronomy.

I don't get correlation.

Exactly. It is very odd that in France life expectancy varies according to the climate and not regional prosperity, in Italy it doesn't vary at all, but if you look at Europe as a whole or at other countries like Belgium and Spain, the GDP per capita (or perhaps human development index) is the best indicator of life expectancy. So how comes that France and Italy are immune to wealth gaps ?
Glasgow in the UK is unfortunatley famous for low life expectancy, having grown up their I would put it down to a very poor diet alot of fried, processed foods and a big social problem with alcohol (and im not talking about red wine).

In my opnion i think it a combination of factors Scotland is pretty harsh in winter so people don't spend much time out doors so in general people will not be engaging in as much physical excercise. Coupled with a very poor modern "fast food" diet and a unhealthy consumption of alcohol. You can add in that Glasgow was a major industrial city and has a large working class population.

Scotland in general has a big problem with anti-social drinking and the "devolved":rolleyes: scottish government has recently tried to impose a minmum pricing on aclohol, there is a situation here where you can buy beer cheaper that a bottle of water.
I enjoy following a cardiologist's blog. And he has written about both diet and climate - in particular vitamin D3 which our body makes when warm sunshine strikes our skin - helping with an increased life span.

In one of his recent postings he mentioned this about aging and diet.

High HbA1c: You're getting older . . . faster
Over the years, we all accumulate Advanced Glycation End-products, or AGEs.
AGEs are part of aging; they are part of human disease. AGEs are the result of modification of proteins by glucose. AGEs form the basis for many disease conditions.
Accumulated AGEs have been associated with aging, dementia, cataracts, osteoporosis, deafness, cancer, and atherosclerosis. Most of the complications of diabetes have been attributable to AGEs.
There's one readily available method to assess your recent AGE status: HbA1c.
Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying protein of red blood cells. Like other proteins, hemoglobin becomes glycated in the presence of glucose. Hemoglobin glycation increases linearly with glucose: The higher the serum or tissue glucose level, the more glycation of hemoglobin develops. Glycated hemoglobin is available as the common test, HbA1c.
Ideal HbA1c is 4.5% or less, i.e., 4.5% of hemoglobin molecules are glycated. Diabetics typically have HbA1c 7.0% or greater, not uncommonly greater than 10%.
In other words, repetitive and sustained high blood glucose leads to greater hemoglobin glycation, higher HbA1c, and indicates greater glycation of proteins in nerve cells, the lens of your eye, proteins lining arteries, and apoprotein B in LDL cholesterol particles.
If AGEs accumulate as a sign of aging, and high blood sugars lead to greater degrees of glycation, it only follows that higher HbA1c marks a tendency for accelerated aging and disease.
Indeed, that is what plays out in real life. People with diabetes, for instance, have kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, cataracts, etc. at a much higher rate than people without diabetes. People with pre-diabetes likewise.
The higher your HbA1c, the greater the degree of glycation of other proteins beyond hemoglobin, the faster you are aging and subject to all the phenomena that accompany aging. So that blood glucose of 175 mg/dl you experience after oatmeal is not a good idea.
The lesson: Keep HbA1c really low. First, slash carbohydrates, the only foods that substantially increase blood glucose. Second, maintain ideal weight, since normal insulin responsiveness requires normal body weight. Third, stay physically active, since exercise and physical activity exerts a powerful glucose-reducing effect. Fourth, consider use of glucose-reducing supplements, an issue for another day.
While HbA1c cannot indicate cumulative AGE status, it can reflect your recent (preceding 60 to 90 days) exposure to this age-accelerating thing called glucose.
If your doctor refuses to accommodate your request for a HbA1c test, you can perform your own fingerstick test.

And with the sunshine vitamin, D3:

TUESDAY, JULY 08, 2008
Vitamin D and programmed aging?
As we age, we lose the capacity to activate vitamin D in the skin.
Studies suggest that, between ages 20 and 70, there is a 75% reduction in the ability to activate vitamin D. The capacity of conversion from 25 (OH) vitamin D to 1,25 di(OH) vitamin D also diminishes.
Holick M. Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
From Holick, M. 2006
This would explain why 70-year olds come to the office, just back from the Caribbean sporting dark brown tans, are still deficient, often severely, in blood levels of vitamin D (25(OH) vitamin D). A tan does not equal vitamin D.
Courtesy Ipanemic
A practical way of looking at it is that anyone 40 years old or older has lost the majority of ability for vitamin D activation.
This often makes me wonder if the loss of vitamin D activating potential is nature's way to get rid of us. After all, after 40, we've pretty much had our opportunity to recreate and make our contribution to the species (at least in a primitive world in which humans evolved): we've exhausted our reproductive usefulness to the species.
Is the programmed decline of vitamin D skin activation a way to ensure that we develop diseases of senescence (aging)? The list of potential consequences of vitamin D deficiency includes: osteoporosis, poor balance and coordination, falls and fractures; cancer of the breast, bladder, colon, prostate, and blood; reductions in HDL, increases in triglycerides; increased inflammation (C-reactive protein, CRP); declining memory and mentation; coronary heart disease.
Isn't that also pretty much a list that describes aging?
A fascinating argument in support of this idea came from study from St Thomas’ Hospital and the London School of Medicine:
Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women
Telomeres are the "tails" of DNA that were formerly thought to be mistakes, just coding for nonsense. But more recent thinking has proposed that telomeres may provide a counting mechanism that shortens with aging and accelerates with stress and illness. This study suggests that both vitamin D and inflammation (CRP) impact telomere length: the lower the vitamin D, the shorter the telomere length, particularly when inflammation is greater.
Data supporting vitamin D's effects on preventing or treating cancer, osteoporosis, lipid abnormalities, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, etc., is developing rapidly.
Now the big question: If declining vitamin D is nature's way of ensuring our decline and death, does maintaining higher vitamin D also maintain youthfulness?
I don't have an answer, but it's a really intriguing idea.
Good article Shasta, I'm on 4,000 IU a day of D3, and resveratrol. To the best of my knowledge it should slow my aging somewhat.
Good article Shasta, I'm on 4,000 IU a day of D3, and resveratrol. To the best of my knowledge it should slow my aging somewhat.

Thanks! I'm a big fan of vitamin D3. I take 8000ius a day. I test to keep my circulating levels between 60 to 70ng/ml year round. Before D3, I had a Gi condition similar to crohns. Now the Gi system is just about all healed up. Other positives I've noticed is I have not had the flu since I began taking D3 four years ago, and the winter blues have gone away.
Don't forget the flax seed oil...
It is strange that Italy should have so little gap between its richer and poorer regions. In Belgium and Spain, the gap is much more marked.
The gap between the lowest and highest in Spain is only 4

In Spain too, people live less long in the poorer regions of Andalusia, Murcia and Extremadura, and longest in Madrid, Castilla y Léon, La Rioja and Navarra.
Yet the poorer regions of Spain are higher than some european countries. Spain is 6th in the world , tied with Sweden
I don't think we have enough data to pull the right conclusions. The differences are too small to find one big factor to explain them.
Don't forget the flax seed oil...

I like flax seed oil and take some from time to time. It is high in ALA omega 3. The problem with it is that ALA is poorly converted in the body to the omega 3s EPA/DHA found in fish oil - which is what your body uses best.

From what I've read, when it comes to increasing life spans a 2 to 1 or even better 1 to 1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is best. An omega 3 index level that is 10% or higher is associated with fewer sudden cardiac events.

Here is an article i liked that discusses omega 3 index levels:
I can think of a lot of factors that influence life expectancy outside of diet, climate and genetics. For example:

1) France and Japan have very high antibiotic use; it's quite probable that adults will have taken antibiotics every year of their lives. In contrast, the UK tries to limit antibiotic use to combat drug resistance, and a typical UK adult may only take antibiotics every 5 or 10 years. But there is some evidence that heart disease is partially caused by bacterial damage earlier in life; damage that may have been avoided by antibiotic use.

2) The Spanish refer to the 1940s and 50s as the hungry decades. The aftermath of the civil war resulted in near famine conditions. Elderly Spaniards grew to adulthood in those years (you can see how short they are compared to their children and grandchildren) and I assume a significant proportion of their siblings were lost to disease and malnutrition. So the ones who are alive now survived the cull, and are REALLY tough. No wonder they're living to a very ripe old age (and nothing to do with the so-called Mediterranean diet; what Spaniards actually eat is lumps of pork swimming in lard.)
Life expectancy at birth by World Health Statistics 2010:

Year 2008, for both sexes:

Belgium 80
Bulgaria 73
Canada 81
Croatia 76
Cyprus 80
Czech Republic 77
Denmark 79
Finland 80
France 81
Germany 80
Greece 80
Hungary 74
Iceland 82
Ireland 80
Italy 82
Japan 83
Latvia 71
Lithuania 72
Luxembourg 80
Malta 80
Netherlands 80
Norway 81
Poland 76
Portugal 79
Romania 73
Russian Federation 68
Slovakia 75
Slovenia 79
Spain 81
Sweden 81
Switzerland 82
UK 80
USA 78

Eradication of parasites from our lives by improved hygiene and food testing, is also one of main factors why we live longer. Lies, flees, tape worms, hook worms, etc list is actually pretty long.
Prahlad Jani, an 82-year-old yogi who claimed he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for 70 years , was observed by 30 medics in a hospital in the Indian state of Gujarat. He spent two weeks under constant surveillance in an area equipped with cameras and closed circuit television. During the 15-day period, which ended Thursday, Jani didn’t eat, drink or go to the toilet.

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