How Dean Ornish Heals Hearts and Bodies through Lifestyle Intervention
Four decades ago, when a young Dean Ornish was in medical school, he asked to study how a vegetarian diet and yoga could help heart patients. His supervisor asked him, “Should I say I’m referring patients to a swami?” Today, the benefits of yoga and a plant-based diet have gone from fringe to mainstream acceptance, thanks in large part to pioneering doctors like Ornish. A panel of experts for US News and World Report recently tied “The Ornish Diet” for first place in a ranking of “Best Heart-Healthy Diets”. Ornish advised former US President Bill Clinton on healthy eating, which contributed to Clinton’s dramatic weight loss a decade ago. A research pioneer and advocate in the field of integrative medicine for four decades, he has been leading the charge for lifestyle intervention to reverse chronic disease. A star-studded cast of influencers from Beyoncé to James Cameron to Tony Robbins and Barbra Streisand, as well as medical leaders like Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and former Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy, all praise Ornish’s recent book “UnDo It”. Co-authored with his wife Anne, “UnDo It” reflects our world’s increasing hunger to undo the progression of common and costly chronic diseases—and the truth that changing the way we live and eat is the way to healing.
Parvati Magazine: Dr. Ornish, since we last spoke several months ago, what have you been working on?
Dean Ornish: I have been directing the first randomized, controlled clinical trial to determine if comprehensive lifestyle changes can reverse the progression of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The reason lifestyle changes are beneficial in reversing so many chronic diseases is that they affect many common underlying biological mechanisms.
We also conducted the first controlled study showing that these lifestyle changes may lengthen telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that regulate aging (in collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work with telomeres). New research indicates that there may be a causal relationship between shorter telomeres and Alzheimer’s.
We are at a state of scientific evidence with respect to Alzheimer’s disease very similar to where we were 40 years ago regarding coronary heart disease. In other words, epidemiological data, anecdotal clinical evidence, and animal studies indicate that Alzheimer’s disease may be reversed by making these comprehensive lifestyle changes. But no one has yet conducted this study. Other studies have shown that more moderate lifestyle changes may slow the rate of dementia. We are studying if more intensive lifestyle changes may reverse its progression. Whatever we show will be of great interest.
Parvati Magazine: What are some of the successes you have seen in your UnDo It! lifestyle intervention program?
Dean Ornish: In our programs, we’ve been training hospitals, clinics, physician groups and health systems throughout the country and we’re getting bigger changes in lifestyle, better clinical outcomes, bigger cost savings to healthcare and better adherence. 85% to 90% of people complete all of those sessions [in the 9-week program] and a year later, 85 to 90% of people are still following it. The reason is, there is no point giving up something that you enjoy unless you get something back that is even better. These mechanisms are so dynamic that you feel much better, quickly. It reframes making those changes from fear of dying, which is not sustainable, to joy and pleasure, love and feeling good.
A patient I wrote about in the book “UnDo It” was severely ailing and needing a heart transplant. While waiting for a donor for a new heart, she went through my program at UCLA—and in nine weeks, she improved so much she didn’t need a heart transplant anymore.
Parvati Magazine: Today, we hear much more about the impact of loneliness on our health. In your opinion, how does loneliness affect chronic disease and lifespan?
Dean Ornish: Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely from pretty much all causes, compared with those who have a sense of connection to the community.
Parvati Magazine: Is this why “love more” is one of the four core principles of your lifestyle intervention program and a chapter in your book, “UnDo It”?
Dean Ornish: “Love More” is my favourite chapter! There is a real epidemic of loneliness and depression. In our program, we found that depression scores were cut in half, which is way better than any anti-depressants, because we’re not just treating the behaviour—we are treating the underlying cause. So often, people overeat, or drink too much, or work too hard, or smoke cigarettes, or use opioids, or play too many video games, because they’re lonely and depressed, because of the breakdown in their social network. We have people recreating those social networks in ways that are very healing to them.
Dr. Dean Ornish is the president and founder of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is a recognized thought leader and bestselling author, and has served as physician consultant to former US President Clinton.