“I think our unique contribution has been to use these very high-tech, expensive and very recent scientific measures to demonstrate how powerful these very low-tech, very low-cost interventions are,” said Ornish, a university professor. of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
What is good for your heart is good for your mind, Ornish said, and vice versa. “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 can halt or even reverse this decline.”
“It’s low in fat, but that’s just a small part of the overall diet,” Ornish said. “It’s basically a plant-based diet, low in fat and sugar, and eating foods that are as close to nature as possible.”
The program also includes an hour daily of yoga-based stress management using stretching, breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques. Strength training and walking or other aerobic exercise are required for 30 minutes a day or an hour three times a week. No smoking.
“There are also support groups, not only helping people stay on their diet but creating a safe environment where people can let down their emotional defenses and talk openly and honestly about what’s really going on in their lives,” Ornish told CNN.
“That was the part that struck me the most – these support groups are really intimate,” he added. “Sharing things like ‘I might look like the perfect dad, but my kids are on heroin’, or whatever. Even with Zoom, they get to the same level of intimacy in a session or two because there’s a huge thirst for it.”
Ornish emphasized that these people are “three to 10 times more likely to get sick and die early than just about everything” when compared to people who say they have a sense of love, connection and community.
“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
By 1993, insurance giant Mutual of Omaha began reimbursing policyholders for the cost of the Ornish program, making it the first alternative treatment besides chiropractic to win insurance reimbursement. Medicare began covering lifestyle interventions for heart disease in 2006.
“In October 2021, Medicare agreed to cover my cardiology program when it’s done via Zoom, which is really a game changer,” Ornish said. “Now we can reach people at home, in rural areas and food deserts wherever they are, which will help reduce health inequalities and health inequalities.”
“With so much interest in personalized medicine, how do these lifestyle changes halt, and often reverse, the development of such a broad spectrum of more common and costly chronic diseases?” asked Ornish.
“Because they all share the same basic biological mechanisms: chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes in the microbiome, changes in gene expression, over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, changes in immune function, etc.,” he said.
“In turn, each one of these is directly affected by what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get and how much love and support we get,” Ornish said.
“After just three months into the Ornish lifestyle program, the research found 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 of these different conditions are turned off,” Ornish said.
“You don’t technically change your genes, but you change the expression of those genes with chemical switches, turning them on or off,” he said. “So, that means it’s no longer in our genes, making us victims of our genetic destiny. We are not victims. There is a lot we can do.”
“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 participated in the program for five years had about 10% longer telomeres, which is a sign that aging is reflected at the cellular level.”
Will these lifestyle interventions be enough to slow or even reverse the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia? Time will tell. The Ornish study is still ongoing, and while the initial results appear promising, all data must be collected, analyzed and peer-reviewed before the result is reported.
“But I think it’s not one diet and lifestyle intervention for heart disease, another for diabetes or prostate cancer, but it’s different for Alzheimer’s,” Ornish told CNN. “It’s really the same for all of these different conditions.”
“To reverse disease, you need to follow interventions almost 100%. If you’re just trying to prevent disease, the more you change, the more you’ll improve. But what’s most important is your overall way of eating and living loving so we can all die as young as possible.”