SCI and accelerated ageing

People with SCI are faced with accelerated ageing (Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2015). This is not ‘just one of the many common secondary health conditions in SCI , but in fact thé most important consequence of a wheelchair bound existence, which – I am pretty sure- you are never told about during your rehab. In the past (not so very long ago) we certainly did not get old, and our life expectancy is still considerably lower than that of the general population.

Our life expectancy has not increased in recent decades, and it is still clearly below that of the general population.

SCI and accelerated aging

My dear friend Jolanda and I are both “sitting veterans”. The fact that we are still in such good shape after living a 100% sedentary life for over 40 years, has everyting to do with our whole food plant based Sit Smart lifestyle. We are living proof of ‘food as medicine’.

It is true when it is said in health care that the life expectancy of people with paraplegia has increased over the past 50 to 60 years. Many people with paraplegia today live around 30 to 40 years post injury. We are getting older today with a paraplegia, but you don’t usually have to ask how. In addition, our life expectancy has not increased in recent decades, and it is still clearly below that of the general population. (Devivo MJ Spinal Cord. May, 2012)

We, my dear friend Jolanda Paardekam (who was a top wheelchair atlete most of her life) with whom I am pictured here) and I, are now both “sitting veterans”. We were together in one room in the rehabilitation center in Rotterdam in The Netherlands in the early 1980s when we were kids. Now, we’re both already 40 years + in a wheelchair. Perhaps we are currently living in borrowed time, you never know, but to date we have been defying all laws and statistics … Because we are in such a good shape, and have managed to limit our secondary complications to the minimum, unfortunately still really is an exception to the general rule and has everything to do with our diet and lifestyle.

A change in diet is key in order to age healthily as a wheelchair user.

That change in lifestyle and diet is KEY in order to be able to prevent, manage or reverse the most common and often recurring secondary complications and age healthily as a wheelchair user. Anyone who has a spinal cord injury, leads a sedentary life, and whose metabolism, hormone balance and circulatory system is severely disrupted, simply ages much faster (Roberto Pili et al. Curr Gerontol Geriatr Res. 2018). People with paraplegia run the risk of accelerated ageing due to an inactive / sedentary lifestyle and a greater risk of obesity, inflammation (chronic inflammation), pressure ulcers and pulmonary infections. And it works the other way around as well: accelerated ageing comes with aging-associated health complaints and diseases: increase in body fat percentage, diabetes type 2, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, muscle atrophy, Alzheimer’s disease and dementie. 

Jolanda and me are almost secondary complications-free, even though we are living for more than 4 decades with spinal cord injury now. So, what is the main difference between her and me and most people who are living with long-term-spinal cord injury? Our lifestyle and diet. Healthy food (in particular whole food plant-based) has been proven to be very effective against ageing – something that rehabilitation doctors and dietitians still don’t have any knowledge of – and they are unfortunately often not even willing to acquainting themselves with the relevant information. We think this is a huge missed opportunity, because it is so incredibly profitable for our population.

Time for change

Fortunately I found with Dr. Kees Hein Woldendorp that well-known ‘needle in the haystack’: a rehabilitation doctor who was willing to open up to new knowledge and insights and also firmly believed that it was high time to look at new ways of effectively combating secondary complcations in SCI, and and to pave the way for a new era – an era of greater awareness of healthy nutrition for people with spinal cord injury, and the therapeutic use of nutrition during rehabilitation.

A truly effective and functional diet for people with paraplegia must be an anti-ageing diet.

Our starting point in developing The Sit Smart Diet was from the get go: “accelerated ageing” because that is what essentially causes the most common secondary complications in SCI. That is why, in recent years, we have mainly focused on what is called biochemistry, bio-gerontology (the science that studies ageing) and nutri-gerontology (the science that studies the role of nutrition in the ageing process).

Because of this we learned so much about the functioning of the metabolism and the ageing process, and came to the conclusion that a truly effective and functional diet for people with paraplegia must be an anti-aging diet. This has profoundly changed our outlook on diet and paraplegia-related complications. By far the majority of secondary complications in spinal cord injury are essentially ageing-related diseases. And we can tackle all these ‘ageing diseases’ in one go, if we tackle the ageing process itself – instead of always focusing on a separate health problem at a time.

This is a completely new approach to the enormous amount and complexity of secondary complications in SCI.

The Sit Smart Diet is therefore basically an anti-ageing diet. Who would have thought, right? Have you ever looked at your secondary complications as a wheelchair user in this way? Probably not, because this is a completely new approach to the enormous amount and complexity of secondary complications in SCI. In fact a very logical and useful one. And therefore the above diagram. Print it out and hang it on your fridge! It makes everything very clear at a glance and ensures that you are always reminded of your “why”. Because with every bite you therefore promote aging or delay it, and you work – in addition to more energy, vitality and a better quality of life – above all on a longer healthy life. Something that is certainly not self-evident for wheelchair users.

The Sit Smart Diet: Healthy eating for healthy ageing with spinal cord injury

Healthy eating for healthy ageing 

  1. Eat low glycemic. So avoid white flour and wheat products such as bread, muesli, pasta, couscous, bulgur, millet, but also white rice, rice crackers and regular potatoes.
  2. Choose a green smoothie, soy or coconut yogurt, oatmealporridge or quinoa porridge with oat milk for breakfast, and for example buckwheat crackers or vegetables (pasta) for lunch.
  3. Limit eating meat and dairy products drastically. Choose lentils, beans and peas instead.
  4. Avoid vegetable oils that are high in inflammatory omega 6 fats, such as sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sesame oil. And if you use them, certainly never heat up. When baking, preferably use coconut oil or Gheel butter.
  5. Add pant based anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats to your diet (hemp seeds, chia seeds, linseeds, pumpkin seeds and avocado)
  6. Eat blueberries – daily! Making one simple change to your diet by adding blueberries could have a significant impact on insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, and brain power. You can also buy pure, freeze-dried blueberry powder and mix it with your (bottle of) water, oatmeal porridge, soy or coconut yogurt.

For more blogs or free recipes, visit my personal website The Sitting Chef.

The Sitting Chef