Interviews

According to This Leading Scientist, Our Impact on Aging Starts Before We’re Born

10 min read

After spending her career at the forefront of nutritional research, Marie Caudill has learned to draw parallels from her work to her own life.
After spending her career at the forefront of nutritional research, Marie Caudill has learned to draw parallels from her work to her own life.

Essential Takeaways

  • Marie Caudill has spent her career at the forefront of prenatal nutrition research—focusing specifically on the role of folate and choline in pregnancy and beyond.
  • But while her work has centered largely around the start of life, Caudill emphasizes that her research can tell us a lot about how our nutritional choices impact our health at any life stage.

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We’ve talked at length about the potential impact of starting small. Of remembering to floss; moving your body; taking your vitamins. That’s all great, of course. But when it comes to investing in our long-term health—the idea of viewing aging as a constantly evolving mechanism, rather than an eventual outcome—Dr. Marie Caudill would like to invite you to think even smaller. Tiny. Microscopic. This is, after all, her area of expertise: Caudill has spent her career researching the relationship between certain micronutrients (choline and folate, to be very specific) and prenatal development, and the potential tie to our DNA. Her work is so significant, that the National Institute of Health has shaped some of its prenatal choline recommendations around Caudill’s research. (1)

But while Caudill has made a name for herself researching nutrition at this very micro level, in truth, her first foray into this world came from a much more generalized—not to mention relatable—place: As a competitive tennis player in college, she was curious how her diet could help fuel her overall athletic performance. One nutrition class gave way to a Master’s in Nutritional Science, which led to a registered dietitian certification, which ultimately brought her to her PhD. It was around this time that she realized she had an interest in prenatal nutrition; fast-forward a couple of decades, and Caudill is now an internationally-recognized expert, speaker, and professor based out of Cornell University.

So, sure—on paper, Caudill’s area of expertise is quite specific. (Scientific specialties tend to be, after all.) But as our conversation unfolds, the universal parallels of her work are undeniable. Take nutrigenomics, for example—a buzzy area of research that draws the link between nutrition and our genetic material. By its very definition, the ramifications of our diets have more of a lasting impact than we might bargain for, and pregnancy is a particularly fitting case study. (As our resident dietitian and Senior Director of Scientific Affairs, Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, puts it: “Pregnancy is the only time in your life that three generations are exposed to the same environment—you, your fetus, and your fetus’ reproductive cells.” No pressure, right?)

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The point though, says Caudill, is that this confluence of nutrition and its role in genetics isn’t just a pregnancy-specific thing—it can also play a major role in our health for the long haul, and not just on our offspring. Scientists have known, after all, for some time that nutrition plays a key role in helping to support healthy aging. But Caudill predicts that as research continues to zero in on the specifics around the relationship between micronutrients and our DNA, we’ll be all the more precise in the way we tailor our nutritional needs—and the impact could be pretty astounding. “The long-term goal is to be able to look at people's genetic makeup and make nutrient-intake recommendations based upon their genetic profile,” she says. “We're not there yet, though we've made a lot of gains.” (2)

In other words, as impactful as Caudill’s work around choline and folate is—we use choline alongside methylated folate in our Essential Prenatal, after all—it only scratches the surface of the possibilities to come. With all these forward-thinking details in mind, it might be surprising to know that Caudill’s own approach to a healthy, longevity-focused lifestyle is refreshingly attainable—with a scientific twist, of course. Below, she dives deeper into the connection between her work and her daily routine—and her three-step approach to aging well.

Did you know?

Choline helps support your baby's developing brain.* (1)
Learn more

On pioneering the research of this “underappreciated nutrient”…

“My transition to [studying] choline was because it was related to folate, and it was a relatively ignored nutrient that I deemed to be extremely important given its links to folate. But it also has its own specific functions.

“Because it was an understudied nutrient, there was interest by the funding agencies to put a little bit of money behind some of this research. So, really, because it was more of a novel nutrient and under-investigated, that actually gave me an advantage.”

On getting better acquainted with our DNA…

“It's actually a really important factor. We've looked at common genetic variants, which can change the way we use nutrients. For example, we found that if you've got variants in your folate genes, it may change the way you use choline—in fact, it can increase your requirement for choline."

Did you know?

The island of Ikaria, Greece is considered a Blue Zone—that is, one of the areas of the world where people live much longer than average. 1 in 3 Ikarians live past 90 years old, and the local cuisine here is a variation of the Mediterranean Diet (2).

On the role of nutrition in aging…

“Our nutrition needs change as we age. I think a lot of people appreciate that, but there's also some decisions that people make that might not be of benefit to the life stage that they're in at the time. So what I mean by that is, when we have a young child, putting them primarily on a plant-based diet with very little animal food or no animal food may not optimize their brain development and the development of other organs. But, as we age, and we're out of that time frame where so much development is occurring in our body, then that transition to more of a plant-based diet actually may be beneficial in terms of helping support healthy aging.

“A Mediterranean dietary pattern, for example, may improve our chances of avoiding some of the common effects that occur with aging.”

On applying her nutritional expertise to her own life…

“My main focus for myself is a high-quality diet. I don't restrict any particular food group—I consume red meat, I consume chicken, I consume fish and other seafood, but I always make sure that I've also got a plentiful portion of vegetables and fruits. At the same time, I'm very much plant-based focused with my diet. A Mediterranean-style dietary pattern would describe the way that I eat.”

“But I look at the quality of my eating at any given time and I say, ‘Are there certain nutrient needs that I'm just not going to achieve with my diet?’ And there certainly are. So for me, vitamin D is one of those nutrients that there's just no way that I'm going to reach the target intake level, so I supplement with that. I also supplement with omega-3 fatty acids because, although I have fish in my diet, my omega-3 fatty intake levels are not at targeted intakes either.”

“Things have changed over the course of my life, so my nutrient supplementation has changed, too. But I base that on what I'm currently consuming and what nutrients just aren't going to be at an adequate intake.”

"Just like your diet, your supplements should also reflect a certain quality. I think it’s about taking a supplement that's not providing huge amounts of single nutrients, but one that's balanced and made from really quality ingredients."

Did you know?

Researchers have linked regular walking with cognitive function, stress levels, and overall wellbeing (4,5,6).

On the Rituals that age well…

“My big things are nutrition, physical activity, and reducing stress. We sit so much these days. I like to target at least an hour every day of movement—for me, that's walking. But everybody is going to have their own preferences. [The point is] to find something that is sustainable, that you will do on a regular basis, and you look forward to. I have a dog, so walking is just something I do twice a day for half an hour.”

“Another thing I've come to realize over my lifetime is the importance of managing stress. [In my twenties,] I never really appreciated the effects that stress can have on your well-being. In my view, it can undo some of the really good things that you might be doing to help you age healthfully. So, taking care of yourself and making sure you don't have too much on your plate is just so important.”

References:

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). A possible brain food that you've probably never heard of. Retrieved from Harvard Health
  2. Buettner, D. (2012, October 24). The Island Where People… Retrieved from New York Times
  3. Has employment of women and minorities in S&E jobs increased? (n.d.). Retrieved from National Science Foundation
  4. Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152. doi: 10.1037/a0036577
  5. Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Exercising to relax. Retrieved from Harvard Health
  6. Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience… Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(28), 8567–8572. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112

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