Monday, January 29, 2007

Do Vegetarians Live Longer?

One reader asks: Where's the proof that vegetarians live longer? Where's the proof that vegans live longer?

The literature is mixed on this subject of longevity. Some studies say that vegetarians and vegans live longer, and others show no difference. While vegetarians and vegans will be more healthy and youthful in their younger years, the difference shrinks as people get into their eighth and ninth decades of life.

Keep in mind, though, that the standard American diet is a major cause of many illnesses, including but not limited to coronary artery disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, or cancer. It is known that vegetarians and vegans are much less likely to suffer from these diseases.

These illnesses, which can be avoided by diet, can be debilitating. Take the example of one man, with hypertension and diabetes. He has a heart attack at age 50. He has a stent put in. Then, as his diabetes progresses, his vision becomes worse. He develops disease in the arteries of his legs. He has bypass surgery on his legs, but this does not work and eventually he requires an amputation, confining him to a wheelchair. Then, his kidneys fail as a result of years of diabetes and hypertension, and he requires three hours of dialysis each day in order to survive. At age 70, he dies of another heart attack.

While this person lived a relatively normal life span, his quality of life was clearly impacted by his burden of disease. It is very plausible that he could have lived a much healthier life had his diet been different. He could have had better control of his diabetes. In fact, Dr. Neal Barnard's most recent work shows that a vegan diet has a powerful impact in reversing diabetes (Diabetes Care. 29(8):1777-83, 2006 Aug).

There is some evidence that people who follow a plant-based diet live longer. But, the bottom line is that a plant-based diet reduces the risk of many illnesses, and leads to a far better quality of health throughout most of life.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog very much; however, I must confess that I am deeply concerned that you use the phrase "confined to a wheelchair" in this entry. People USE wheelchairs for mobility; their spheres of influence and action are not limited to the so-called "confines" or "boundaries" of these chairs. In fact, the term "confined" has extremely negative/limiting connotations (powerlessness and lack of agency among them). For this reason, many persons living with (dis/)abilities and advocates and allies of persons living with experiences of (dis/)ability discourage the use of this phrase. As you probably know, language is inextricably bound up with power; it can be empowering and en-abling, or dis-empowering and dis-abling. In light of these issues, it is with the greatest respect that I recommend that you read Joan Blaska's work on person first language (The Power of Language: Speak and Write Using "Person First," In Perspectives on Disability. Mark Nagler, ed. 1993 - it is available online in PDF format, the link will come up when you run a quick search). I hope that the information that she provides about language choice/use will encourage you to reconsider your language choice in the future and empower you to make more respectful language choices. I think that this is particularly important given your role in the context of health care, particularly in terms of patient-doctor interaction. I offer these comments in the spirit of positive change and growth and hope that you receive them as such.

herself75 said...

Anon, I think you are missing the docs point. If an able bodied person takes care of themselves eats well, exercises etc, then they will not need a wheelchair to aid in their mobility. I know the doc personally, and I can't possibly imagine a darrogatory intent. (NAK)

VeganDoc said...

My intent was that as an older amputee, this hypothetical patient cannot walk, and therefore relies solely on a wheelchair to get around. I apologize if my choice of word offends you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your reply VeganHeartDoc and comment herself75.

In response to your note, herself75, I do understand the point of the article. However, in responding to the article, I made a conscious choice to focus on a point about the entry that I see as equally important. This is the issue of language.

To be clear, I didn't mean to imply in my original post that I felt the Doc's word choice was intentionally derogatory (rereading my original post, I don't think that I suggested this).

Again, my intention in responding was to raise awareness about how we use certain linguistic conventions without thinking about their consequences/meanings/associations/connotations (popular expressions along these lines include things like: "that's so gay," "that's retarded," and "that's lame"...all of which are extreme examples of how negative associations are created and maintained about certain people and experiences -- and, while most people use expressions like this uncritically/unthinkingly and without derogatory intent, I think it is dangerous to forget that these expressions do take aim at people of certain sexual orientations, people who live with experiences of dis/ability that relate to cognitive development, and people who do not "walk" according to normative expectations).

Ultimately, by suggesting one of many resources that discusses these issues and explains how we can use language more effectively and positively, it was my intent to offer some tools to help us speak more respectfully, which I think is a great thing! :-)

Veg-a-Nut said...

Doc - I have a question about cholestrol. I was not sure if I should post it or do it through email. If you think email would be best please email me at Thanks!

sp said...

I like the fact that you bring this post around to being about quality of life as opposed to quantity. Does it really matter if the veg lifestyle causes one to live longer. What is important is the quality of life and how one feels on a day to day basis is it not?

Mindblender said...

I think the question of whether or not vegans live longer than omnivores is a little too simple. I could design a vegan diet that would kill the average person before he/she reached sixty years of age. For instance, if your vegan diet includes a lot of hydrogenated veg oil, you'll be doing worse than someone who eats an identical diet with the exception of substituting lard in place of that nice vegan hydrogenated veg oil. Likewise, if your vegan diet includes a lot refined sugar and white flour, your health will probably fare worse than someone who consumes only unrefined, unprocessed foods, even if that person occasionally eats small amounts of organic meat.

There are dozens if not hundreds of such factors that weigh in on diet/longevity discussion, but I'm well convinced that generally the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of vegans. I think if you compare the lives of people who eat a nutritionally balanced, nutrient-dense diet of fresh, raw, organic vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds as compared to people who eat a lot of animal products, you'll see a much greater health and longevity difference than you will simply comparing "vegans" to "non-vegans".