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Dr. Lester Breslow

Mr. Public Health

Dr. Lester Breslow's research in the 1960s showed the value of following simple steps to a healthy life. Now, at 82, he's living proof.

October 13, 1997|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't smoke, but do eat breakfast and get a good night's sleep. Lay off the sauces, the booze, the in-between-meal Chee-tos and, for God's sake, get off that couch!

These ABCs of healthy living are so ingrained in our minds--at least as ideals--it's hard to believe they aren't a given.

But not long ago, they were not so widely embraced. And if there is one man who has done more than anyone else to prove their worth, it's Dr. Lester Breslow.

Colleagues at UCLA and across the country call the energetic 82-year-old "Mr. Public Health," mostly because he helped set the course for modern thinking about health and fitness. Breslow was uncannily on target, not just about smoking, but about many of the more subtle influences on the quality, and quantity, of human life.

And over his lifetime, he's accumulated a devoted--and distinguished--following.

"What a role model," said Dr. Philip Lee, former UC San Francisco chancellor and assistant secretary of health during the Johnson and Clinton administrations. "I'm 73, and I look at Les and think, 'Boy, if I can do just half of what Les has done. . . .' "

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Back in the early 1960s, while at the state health department, Breslow launched what now are considered landmark studies in Alameda County showing that adopting just seven healthy habits could add years, as well as vitality, to the average life.

Among the striking findings of the study of about 7,000 adults: A 45-year-old male who practiced six of the seven habits could expect to live 11 years longer than one who followed fewer than than four of them.

Breslow had faith in his hunches about health, which, for the most part, were rooted in scientific research (except the breakfast tip, which he admits was little more than an educated guess). But when the findings first came out, showing that even one or two habits made a measurable difference in a person's general well-being, even the good doctor did a double take.

"I'd never seen such a systematic, positive, strong finding," he said, smiling at the thought 30 years later in his UCLA office. "I thought it was some prank."

Once his colleagues on the project convinced him that the results were no gag, he became more wedded than ever to the notion that health is more than just the absence of disease, and that medicine is more than the search for a diagnosis.

"[I] think of health as the capacity for full living. Some people think of health as a state, they speak of health status . . . but I think of health as what underlies, what comes before health status, namely the competencies that people have . . . in a variety of physical, social and psychological rubrics."

So medicine, he reasoned, should not confine itself to draining abscesses, prescribing potions and setting broken bones. Health practitioners ought to step in earlier, to help set the conditions for healthy living.

That, in essence, is what Lester Breslow's career has been all about. Through his stint at the Minnesota health department, his tour of duty at the California health department (culminating in a three-year term as director), his years at the UCLA School of Public Health (including eight as dean), he has doggedly pursued this single ideal.

He is pursuing it still.

At an age when most people have either died or long since retired, Breslow is jetting across the country to give expert testimony in states' anti-tobacco lawsuits, fielding pointed queries from lawyers half his age.

He was lead author of a July report--known informally as "The Breslow Report"--that brazenly urged a revamping of the Los Angeles County health department from the top down.

In his spare time, he's been collaborating on research exploring the relationship between medicine and public health. And, for posterity's sake, he's been squiring around a young medical resident from Canada to acquaint him with the ways of the public health world in this country.

"He's in his early 80s, and he doesn't show any signs of slowing down," marveled Richard Brown, a UCLA colleague, who, like Breslow before him, has served as president of the American Public Health Assn.

A strange state of affairs for a man who considers himself a lifelong devotee of moderation.

"Even then [in the 1960s], I had the notion, and I still do, that moderation and regularity of life is perhaps the most important influence on health," he said.

In his case, friends and colleagues say, he would have to add a passion for his work, his family--including his second wife, his three sons by his first marriage and their families--and, of course, his beloved vegetable and fruit garden.

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