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How to be young at heart.

Finland is a small country world famous for its sturdy people. It is also infamous, caUed by some the "country of young widows" because of the premature deaths of its young men. Finland has the highest cardiovascular death rate in Europe. How so?

In 1957, a credible researcher, J. Kobayashi, first noted that the nature of drinking water might influence the death rates from cardiovascular disease. (Finland is a soft-water-drinking country.) Later, investigators established that deaths in the United States from "coronary" heart attacks in white men 45 to 64 years old were significantly higher in states with soft water than in states with hard water.

Deaths from cerebrovascular accidents (strokes) followed a similar pattern. Complicating the interpretation of these findings was the fact that ischemic heart disease death rates were higher in urban than in rural communities. To eliminate this factor, coronary death rates ftom three cities with hard, intermediate, and soft water were compared. The result was startling: more than twice as many heart-attack deaths occurred in soft-water-drinking Savannah, Georgia, as in hard-water-drinking Lincoln, Nebraska. (See study results in chart at right.)

The early investigators also suggested that magnesium in hard water might be useful in maintaining a normal heart rhythm in the presence of ischemia or digitalis toxicity, or in acute alcohol- or diuretic-induced hypomagnesemia (low blood magnesium).

Unfortunately, this early "discovery" was not to be "rediscovered" for another 20 years. In part, the reason was that, usually, hard water's calcium content is many times its magnesium content. In England the average calcium content of hard water is 11 times greater than the average magnesium content. While some scientists were beginning to recognize the protective factors of hard water, most of these investigators accepted the English premise that calcium was the protective factor.

Today, worldwide studies are revealing magnesium as the protective mineral ion.

There is evidence developing that the increased sudden death rate among some patients with heart problems given diuretics to treat their hypertension can be helped by adding magnesium-sparing agents.

Magnesium supplements for patients on diuretics are used in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, France, Germany, South Africa, and Japan. They are beginning to be used for patients on diuretics in the United States. An American pioneer in this area is Dr. John Hollifield of Nashville, Tennessee.

Magnesium intake by Americans has been dropping throughout the century. The typical American ingests 4 to 4.9 mg of magnesium per kilogram of weight per day, in contrast to Asians, who consume between 7 and 10 mg/kg/day. Many Americans, especially in recent decades, tend to have insufficient magnesium in their self-selected diets. It is of interest that populations with a high magnesium intake have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Magnesium plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the heart, kidney, and bone. Deficiency of magnesium causes arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and myocardial infarction, made worse by excess diet intakes of vitamin D, phosphate, and fat.

Starting in the middle 1930s, state governments began mandating vitamin D fortification of milk. The rise in vitamin D intake began when a sufficient amount (400 IU) to cure, rather than merely prevent, rickets became widespread. Because the amount of vitamin D needed by most fairskinned adults is considered so small as to be met by exposure to sunlight and the eating of natural (unfortined) foods, the "toxic" ingestion of vitamin D was yet another 20th-century event possibly contributing to hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart and kidney damage. It is now speculated that adverse effects of hyperlipemia (high blood fat) associated with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) might be contributed to by hypervitaminosis D (much more vitamin D than is required to prevent rickets).

Young women usually retain their dietary magnesium better than young men; young men also require more magnesium by weight than young women. On this basis, the minimal requirements for a positive balance or equilibrium of 6 mg/kg/day for a 140-pound woman would be 385 mg of magnesium daily; a 185-pound man might require 580 to 800 mg/day of magnesium, or approximately twice as much as his diet normally delivers.

Complicating this picture is the tendency of Americans and Europeans to ingest foods rich in fat, protein, sugar, and phosphorus, all of which increase magnesium requirements. Further, even the alcohol ingested in social drinking (to say nothing of moderate-to-heavy imbibing) dramatically increases the body's need for magnesium.

A recent survey of students from 50 colleges shows that the amount of magnesium students usually get from their self-selected diets is 250 mg per day, which may be half the amount required by young women and as little as one-third of the amount needed by large athletic young men. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences currently recommends that young women get a minimum of 300 mg a day, and men a minimum of 350 mg daily.

Logically, one would expect that the heart would hold on to its magnesium because magnesium is necessary to maintain normal rhythm and to protect it from many cardiopathic elements (agents that harm the heart) in our environment. But the heart doesn't retain its magnesium very well. Magnesium shifts into and out of the heart readily as it participates in many heart functions. Thus when there is insufficient magnesium in the blood, as occurs with low intakes, the heart may suffer.

Magnesium deficiency increases vulnerability to stress. It increases the secretion of stress hormones, which then cause further loss of magnesium-creating a vicious cycle-and thereby increases the risk of stress heart attacks.

What to do about the inescapable conclusion that we are not ingesting enough magnesium? Eat more foods high in magnesium. These include dark green leafy vegetables, salmon, sardines, shellfish, beans, nuts, wheat bran, wheat germ, shrimp, soybeans, brown rice, whole-grain oats, and whole-grain barley.

Fats, refined flour, white sugar, and spirits are low or lacking in magnesium. Choice of diet can make a big difference in the daily intake of magnesium. One researcher theorized that the high rate of heart disease in Scotland compared with England is due to the English beer, which contains about 20 times as much magnesium as the whiskey drunk by the Scots. Also, water in Scotland is very soft.

Those who avoid fats and refined carbohydrates and who increase their consumption of fish, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits will increase their daily intake of magnesium and other minerals that affect the functioning of the heart.

If you drink bottled water you should try to find a brand bottled in a hard-water state. If you have a water softener, have the faucets from which you drink excluded ftom the softened water supply. Hard water is bad for the home's plumbing but good for human arteries.

Calcium and magnesium are the most important minerals in hard water. Calcium and magnesium form soaps with dietary fats in the intestine, thereby protecting against fat-related atherosclerosis.

What about magnesium supplements? Anyone who has hypertension or heart disease and takes diuretics that cause magnesium loss should be taking magnesium supplements. Anyone on digitalis drugs, and anyone who has problems with intestinal absorption and who suffers from chronic diarrhea, should probably take magnesium supplements. People who drink too much alcohol should be on magnesium supplements, as should pregnant women, athletes, and muscle builders.

A significant decrease in serum magnesium occurs after a marathon race. In sweating, the body loses many electrolytes. From studies reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology, it would appear that magnesium is depleted to a greater extent after a marathon run than some of the other electrolytes and that replacement of magnesium should become a standard precaution for all marathon runners.

The American physician is now being exposed to more information on magnesium; recently, research articles on magnesium have appeared in numerous professional journals, including American and international journals of cardiology and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, edited by Dr. Mildred Seelig. There are now three professional journals devoted specifically to magnesium.

With so many variables to weigh on (and to confuse) the wary reader, what might be a simple, safe response to the evidence about low magnesium input? The good news is that there are now safe, health-insured ways to supplement the growing lack of magnesium in our available water and nutrition.

Some health observers even say the 1990s will be the decade for magnesium awareness.
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Article Details
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Author:SerVaas, Beurt
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:column
Date:May 1, 1989
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