Stanford scientists share practical prevention tips for inflammation, cognitive health, and heart disease at Health Matters

The Bay Area community was out in full force on Saturday, May 18, for Stanford Medicine’s annual free community health event, Health Matters. Held outdoors on the medical school campus, more than 1,500 attendees gathered to listen to health talks and explore interactive exhibits at a health pavilion staffed by professionals from Stanford Medicine and Stanford Health Care.

In the three health talks, Stanford Medicine physician-scientists spoke to a full-capacity crowd about their latest research and practical tips to fight inflammation with food, maintain brain resiliency, and improve cardiovascular health. Another 500-plus people tuned in via livestream.

Food’s protective power against inflammation

Inflammation is an appropriate adaptive response, signaling the body to fight off infection or heal an injury. But when the body is in a state of chronic inflammation, it can contribute to obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, depression, autoimmune disease, and even cancer. Remarkably, fighting inflammation begins in the kitchen, according to the day's first speaker.

Tamiko Katsumoto, MD, discusses food as medicine at Health Matters. Photo by Steve Fisch.

“The biggest driver of chronic inflammation is something we have control over, and that is our diet,” said Tamiko Katsumoto, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine–immunology and rheumatology. There is an epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. Currently, 6 out of 10 adults have one chronic disease, with the primary driver being poor nutrition. The standard American diet, comprised of ultra-processed foods and animal products, is now the leading cause of poor health. Switching to a plant-based diet can help quell inflammation if it’s already started and reduce the chances of developing chronic inflammatory diseases, said Katsumoto. It can also help reduce the growing rates of obesity in our country. “Plant-based diets can be extremely powerful, and food can be medicine.”

Aiming for a whole-food, plant-based diet is not just good for overall health; it’s also good for the planet—a cause Katsumoto is equally passionate about. “If the world's two billion consumers cut their meat and dairy consumption by 40%, it would save the land area two times the size of India and avoid 168 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions,” Katsumoto said.

Brain power

“We are in an explosion of brain science,” said Frank Longo, MD, PhD, the George E. and Lucy Becker Professor of Medicine and professor of neurology and neurological sciences. “For centuries, the brain has been a black box where scientists did not know what was going on in the brains of living people. During the past few years, technologies have become available that are rapidly changing that reality.

New imaging technology, coupled with omics—the ability to measure thousands of genes and proteins in the blood or spinal fluid—gives scientists a once-impossible view of living people's brains. “This revolution in neuroscience has yielded advanced methods for detecting and treating brain disorders than were previously imaginable just a few decades ago,” said Longo. These technologies have opened the door to new insights and strategies to help increase brain resiliency.

Frank Longo, MD, PhD, discusses breakthroughs in neurological sciences. Photo by Steve Fisch.

While there is no current curative treatment for the most common forms of cognitive decline—dementia, Lewy body dementia, and Alzheimer’s—there are several lifestyle changes people can make to improve brain resilience and function, including exercise, diet, cognitive engagement, and sleep. Longo said exercise has the most profound impact, reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 50%.

What researchers have discovered is that neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are the result of multiple factors—amyloid plaques, Tau tangles, and neuro-inflammation—and, as such, require powerful drugs that address multiple mechanisms. Cognitive decline also begins decades before symptoms occur. In his health talk, Longo discussed two promising new therapies being studied to reduce the progression of dementia. The first, a new compound developed by the Longo Lab, normalizes abnormal proteins that accumulate in the spinal fluid 10 to 20 years before Alzheimer’s disease starts. Results of first-in-human trials show that taking this drug early could delay the onset of Alzheimer's by 10 years, potentially eliminating 90% of cases, he said. The drug is scheduled to undergo a major Phase 3 trial at multiple centers across the United States in the next 12 to 18 months. He also mentioned an ongoing clinical trial at Stanford to study an amyloid reduction antibody treatment.  

Improved imaging, novel blood tests and biomarkers, and robust clinical trials continue to illuminate the biology of the brain and provide hope for new treatments that will prevent or slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Protecting your heart

In a Q&A-style talk, Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, the Simon H. Stertzer, MD, Professor of Medicine, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, professor of medicine–cardiology and of radiology, and current president of the American Heart Association, shared his expertise on a variety of heart health topics, ranging from wearables technology to weight loss medications, current CPR guidelines, supplements, and the indispensable role of exercise and diet in maintaining cardiovascular health.

Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, discusses how to improve heart health. Photo by Steve Fisch.

To help reduce the risk of heart disease, Wu highlighted four modifiable lifestyle changes everyone can implement—exercise, sleep, avoiding tobacco, and diet. Monitoring disease risk factors, specifically LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and body mass index (BMI), is also critical for patients and their clinicians in managing cardiovascular health. For patients with high cholesterol, Wu said the gold standard treatment continues to be statins, a drug that blocks the liver from synthesizing cholesterol. “Statins are very effective and very safe,” said Wu, who takes one himself to control his cholesterol.

While statins remain a vital tool in a cardiologist’s arsenal, weight loss is the next frontier. Wu addressed the benefits of medications known as GLP-1 agonists, such as Ozempic and Wegovy, which work to tell your brain you’re full, slow down your gut so you feel full, and reduce glucose. When taken over three years by patients with a history of heart attack, stroke, or peripheral artery disease, these medications were shown to lower the risk of recurrence of these conditions by 20%. “Reducing body weight by just 10 to 20% dramatically improves your cardiovascular health,” Wu said.

Another area of increasing attention in cardiovascular medicine is the advent of wearable devices that track exercise, heart rate, and sleep. Wu noted that these modern smartwatches and rings can provide patients and physicians with objective health data and even help detect cardiac abnormalities.

Watch all three health talks in full here.