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Preventing chronic diseases with lifestyle medicine

12 September 2019


By Stefania Ubaldi, MD, PhD, President of ELMO, the European Lifestyle Medicine Organisation

Today, chronic diseases represent the major share of the burden of diseases all over the world. They are responsible for more than 75% of all deaths. At the core of the problem is the fact that an unhealthy lifestyle (with lack of physical activity, bad dietary habits, consumption of alcohol and tobacco etc...) causes chronic inflammation in our body’s cells. This inflammation leads to the onset of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. Cellular damage may also be caused by chronic stress.

Our living environment has dramatically changed over the last 60 years, and so has our lifestyle. Unfortunately, the changes have not always been positive for our health. The EPIC (the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study by the WHO, is a study with more than 500,000 participants in 10 European countries. It collected detailed information on lifestyle characteristics (diet, tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, and weight) and medical history.

The study showed (among others things) that adhering to four healthy lifestyle factors (not smoking, exercising 3.5 hours per week, adopting a healthy diet and having a normal body mass index) resulted in a 78% reduction of the risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, myocardial infarction, stroke and cancer, compared to participants without healthy factors, which is no less than spectacular.

However, people need to be aware of the impact of these factors. The key to prevention lies in leading what I like to call an “anti-inflammatory lifestyle”, where one tries to avoid or reduce unhealthy lifestyle factors as much as possible.

What is Lifestyle medicine?

Lifestyle Medicine can be defined as a branch of evidence-based medicine in which comprehensive lifestyle changes (including nutrition, physical activity, stress therapy, social support and environmental exposures) are used to prevent, treat and, in some cases even, reverse the progression of chronic diseases by addressing their underlying causes.

Lifestyle medicine is an interdisciplinary field of internal medicine, psychosocial and neurosciences, public and environmental health, and biology. Key principles include prevention strategies that address lifestyle habits, the underlying biological causes, and the consequences of lifestyle related diseases (e.g. systemic inflammation, metabolic dysfunctions etc.). As such, Lifestyle Medicine is a form of treatment that helps to combine the best aspects of public health and conventional clinical medicine.

To date, there is no unique “lifestyle clinical model”, but some initial programmes have started with excellent preliminary results. Moreover, in 2016, a group of medical doctors decided to establish ELMO, the European Lifestyle Medicine Organisation. The scientific medical organisation, based in Geneva (Switzerland), is dedicated to research, prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. ELMO goal is to raise public awareness for Lifestyle Related Diseases among both health care professionals and the public. We support research on the role of lifestyle factors in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, and offer educational and training programmes.