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Scientists talk aging, mental health and diet at Health Matters

Scientists and doctors discuss aging, healthy diets and new treatments for mental health at this year's Health Matters event.

Hundreds of members of the Stanford Medicine community and beyond gathered outside the Stanford School of Medicine's Li Ka Shing building for the annual Health Matters event on May 20. Attendees visited dozens of exhibits, petting therapy dogs, assuming a variety of yoga positions and learning how to cook plant-based meals.

In three afternoon health talks, Stanford Medicine doctors and scientists spoke to the latest research on how to maintain a healthy body and mind. The focuses: aging and longevity, nutrition and new treatments for mental health.

Aging and longevity

Thanks to 21st century science, people are living longer. And although it's true that, with age, the risk of chronic disease increases, Deborah Kado, MD, professor of medicine, says people age differently -- there's natural variability in individual health and ability as people get older. Living a longer, healthier life has little to do with supplements or fad longevity treatments.

Deborah Kado discusses aging at Health Matters. Photo by Jim Gensheimer.

"I've seen a lot of life-extending supplements come to market in my time, many of which were developed by reputable scientists who take the supplements themselves. None of those scientists are known for extreme longevity," Kado said.

Staying healthy and able in old age has more to do with behavior, Kado said. For instance, patients should practice mobility (safely moving their bodies every day) and mental activity  (prioritizing mindfulness and sleep) that's tailored to individual conditions or recovery protocols. Clinicians should also take care to prescribe only medications that are strictly necessary, Kado said, as increased medication use can be detrimental to the microbiome, the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and aid digestion. And a healthy gut flora supports healthy aging.

Food as medicine

In a joint talk between Michelle Hauser, MD, clinical associate professor of surgery; Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology; and Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine, the three spoke to what it means to use food as medicine in their research and practice.

Sonnenburg focused on microbes, speaking to findings that showed diets high in fiber and fermented foods correlates with a decrease in tissue inflammation and an increase in immune function. "Ninety-nine percent of our genetic material is in our gut microbes, not our human genome. If we don't pay attention to this microbial community, our health can go off the rails," he said.

Michelle Hauser, Christopher Gardner and Justin Sonnenberg discuss food as medicine. Photo by Jim Gensheimer

Gardner presented research that compared the impact of a vegan diet and an omnivorous diet on identical twin participants, showing that those who switched to the vegan diet had a decrease in their LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, and more surprisingly, said Gardner, had fewer biomarkers associated with aging. Gardner said that his goal is not to enforce or cajole people to eat healthier, but rather to work with chefs, including his colleague Hauser, a doctor and a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, to make healthy foods more delicious than the alternative -- a philosophy he described as unapologetic deliciousness.

Hauser focused on something called culinary medicine -- an evidence-based field that combines nutrition and culinary knowledge to preserve health and treat disease. Despite the fact that diet has an outsized influence over one's health, most doctors report that they are not comfortable advising patients about food choices.

Hauser hopes to equip future doctors with the tools to talk to their patients about nutrition through a course that teaches culinary medicine: The Doctor is In (the Kitchen). In the class, medical students learn how to cook healthy, delicious foods, but they also learn about nutrition and how to talk about cooking, eating habits and diet with patients.

"I think we all grew up with the idea that you can have healthy food or you can have tasty food. We wanted to erase that idea and show that those can be the same thing," said Hauser.

Magnetic stimulation for mental health

Nolan Williams, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral Sciences, has been studying a new type of treatment for mental health that uses something called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to treat diseases like depression. TMS therapy activates certain brain cells to reduce neuronal patterns that perpetuate mental health conditions. The method isn't new -- others have used it to help patients, typically over the course of six weeks.

Nolan Williams speaks on a new therapy for depression. Photo by Jim Gensheimer

Williams' version of TMS, however, which he calls Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy (SAINT), harnesses a more intensive and individualized version of TMS that stimulates the brains of patients over only five days. Initial clinical studies showed a reduction in severe depression symptoms in 90% of patients in the trial.

The key to the therapy's effectiveness, Williams said, is detailed brain imaging that's used for each patient, allowing doctors to stimulate the precise neural patterns associated with depression. Williams said that additional research suggests that the therapy may also be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

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