4. The Downside of Longevity
Life expectancy statistics only measure how many years people in a given society can expect to live; it does not measure the actual health of the people in that society. In fact, there is abundant evidence to show that we may be living longer, but we are living far sicker lives than our hunter-gatherer ancestors in both mental and physical health thanks to modern lifestyles. In addition, longer life spans has had other unforeseen knock-on effects.
Chronic diseases are now the plague of modern lifestyles. These conditions can be “managed” through medication and so do not shorten lifespans the way they would in the past, but they severely affect the quality of life of the sufferers.
Obesity has reached epidemic proportions. The number of people in the world who are obese or overweight has topped 2.1 billion, up from 875 million in 1980. That number is slated to more than double by 2030. As of 2012, some 35 percent of Americans were obese, compared with only 14 percent in 1980, and nearly 70 percent of the population was overweight. People who are overweight have a higher risk of heart disease, Type II diabetes and other diseases including some cancers. Even lab animals and crash test dummies are getting fatter.
Globally, one in five men and one in six women will develop cancer before the age of 75. And one in eight men, and one in twelve women, will die from the disease. Currently, 14 million people a year are diagnosed with cancer. The global burden of cancer will grow by 70 percent over the next two decades, the World Health Organization predicts, with an estimated 22 million new cases and 13 million deaths each year by 2032. So-called “cancer villages” have sprung up near polluted rivers in China where 320 million people drink polluted water every day.
Obesity and cancer are directly correlated with a shift to Western diets heavy in carbohydrates and fast food. About 30% of cancer deaths are due to the five risks: obesity, low fruit-and-vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use; all hallmarks of modern industrial societies.
In Cancer, Disease of Civilization (1960), Wilhjalmur Stefansson mentions a few cultures besides the Inuit in which large-scale searches never turned up cancer. Dr. Albert Schweitzer examined over 10,000 traditionally-living natives in Gabon (West Africa) in 1913 and did not find cancer. Later, it became common in the same population as they began "living more and more after the manner of the whites."http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/search/label/cancer
In Cancer, its Nature, Cause and Cure (1957), Dr. Alexander Berglas describes the search for cancer among natives in Brazil and Ecuador by Dr. Eugene Payne. He examined approximately 60,000 people over 25 years and found no evidence of cancer.
Sir Robert McCarrison conducted a seven year medical survey among the Hunza, in what is now Northern Pakistan. Among 11,000 people, he did not find a single case of cancer. Their diet consisted of soaked and sprouted grains and beans, fruit, vegetables, grass-fed dairy and a small amount of meat (including organs of course).
While the germ theory of disease decreased the incidence of infection and has undoubtedly saved many lives, the Hygiene Hypothesis argues that the lack of early childhood exposure to germs is linked to the massive rise in asthma and allergies by suppressing the normal development of the immune system. It has been noted that children who grow up on farms do not develop allergies unlike their counterparts raised in "clean" environments. Asthma rates have quadrupled in the UK since the 1970’s.
There is increasing evidence that the use of antibiotics, especially in babies, harms the "gut flora" - the bacteria in your digestive system. This has been correlated with allergies, obesity, and mood disorders. Children delivered by C-section, which is now very common, do not receive important bacteria from their mothers and have higher incidence of obesity and food allergies.
1 in 68 children in America is now born with autism. Nobody is quite sure why, but culprits range from increasing age of parents to antibiotics to pesticide use.
Nearsightedness has reached epidemic levels. In Asia rates of myopia have risen from 20 percent to 90 percent in a few decades, with possible severe vision impairment. Experts blame this on increasingly stringent educational standards and time spent indoors away from natural light.
Our bodies are contaminated with hundreds of chemicals including lead, mercury, and bromide in breast milk. a number of plastics contain endocrine disruptors which mimic the body's hormones and disrupt the endocrine system. Our food is full of hormones and antibiotics.
Our bodies are designed to deal with the acute stress, not the chronic stresses of modern life like driving or unemployment. Chronic stress has been shown to diminish brain cells required for memory and learning and cause damage at the cellular level. It has also been linked to blood pressure disorders and cardiovascular disease. Sedentary lifestyles, especially in the workplace, are linked to a raft of disorders including diabetes, hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, and back pain. We’ve already seen how grain and sugar-heavy diets lead to tooth decay.
People in Western counties are perennially sleep-deprived. This has been linked to smart phone use. Computer screens including smart phones emit light in the blue end of the spectrum which interferes with melatonin production, which control the body's sleep cycles. Shift work has been associated with higher incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and ovarian cancer. Light pollution in cities also interferes with circadian rhythms and has been linked to certain cancers. Sleep apnea is now epidemic.
It's not just physical health that is failing. One in five Americans is on some sort of antipsychotic medication. One in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication; among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four. Living in urban environments has been linked to schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, and other ailments. 14 percent of 13 to 18 year olds have a mood disorder.
The World Health Organization reports every year, about one million people die by suicide. That comes to around 3,000 deaths a day or one death every 40 seconds. In the past 45 years, the World Health Organization says suicide rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide and it predicts these deaths will rise to 1.5 million by 2020. It says suicide deaths account for more than half of all violent deaths in the world - more than all deaths from wars and homicides combined. Almost a quarter of suicides are teenagers and young adults aged less than 25.
The most explosive effect, however, has been population growth. Ever since the onset of the industrial revolution, the human population has grown exponentially. Currently the population is growing by around 200,000 people a day. 14 percent of all the people who have ever lived are alive today.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700s, the world’s human population grew by about 57 percent to 700 million. It would reach one billion in 1800... In only 100 years after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the world population would grow 100 percent to two billion people in 1927 (about 1.6 billion by 1900).During the 20th century, the world population would take on exponential proportions, growing to six billion people just before the start of the 21st century. That’s a 400 percent population increase in a single century. Since the 250 years from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today, the world human population has increased by six billion people!http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/18/ecological-impact-industrial-revolution/
This has put unprecedented strain on our natural resources. We use between 25 and 40 percent of the earth’s net primary productivity depending on how its measured. 10,000 years ago wild animals outweighed humans by 100 to 1. Today humans and the domesticated animals that sustain us now outweigh wild animals by a factor of 50. Wildlife populations have declined by almost half just since 1970. The environmental impacts of overpopulation, from deforestation, to depleting aquifers, to eroding topsoil to collapsing fish stocks, to climate change and ocean acidification are too numerous to mention. We are currently using 1.5 Earth’s worth of resources.
Just as troubling is how much of our food supply is sustained by fossil fuels, which are a finite resource sure to deplete in the future. We’ve managed to expand the food supply along with living standards (for some) only by using fossil fuels. It has been estimated that half of the world’s population is alive today because of fertilizer made from the Haber-Bosch process which uses natural gas as a feedstock. But our entire agricultural system is dependent upon fossil fuels, particularly oil. Richard Manning wrote about this in an article for Harper’s Magazine called The Oil We Eat:
Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.Also troubling is that antibiotics, which are responsible for much of the longer lifespans are rapidly losing their potency. The UK’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has warned of an” antibiotic apocalypse,” and doctors from the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. have issued similar dire warnings about antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ that are becoming increasingly common, especially in hospitals.
Since we have been using antibiotics for several generations at this point, we have developed no natural resistance to bacterial diseases, meaning if we lose antibiotics the death toll could be catastrophic. The same is true if we run low on fossil fuels. We would not be able to produce enough food for a human population that is expected to keep growing dramatically through the rest of the century, with even a world war or disease outbreak hardly making a dent.
And the sad fact is that because sick babies died in the past, although no doubt painful and tragic, this kept the population relatively healthy. Now that even the sickest people can stay alive and reproduce, we are seeing a precipitous decline in overall human health. In the past, various cultures devised coping strategies for parents to deal with this reality:
Parents knew they couldn’t expect infants to live. In the United States and other parts of the world, infants often weren’t named immediately; a tradition in China and other parts of Asia is to name a child only after 100 days. According to some interpretations of Jewish law, if a baby dies before 30 days, it never really lived. ..But overall, parents’ relationships with their children were fundamentally different than they are in much of the world today. “It was very difficult to invest emotionally because at least half of them would die,” says S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. French historian Philippe Ariès popularized the notion that childhood is a modern invention and that until recently children weren’t as coddled or precious as they are today.It's worth noting that besides science and cleanliness, the habits and social structures of modern industrial society have a negative overall effect on health: artificial light and odd work hours, sedentism and lack of physical activity, forty-hour-plus work weeks, blue-spectrum light, close-up work, staying indoors most of the time, pollution in the air and water, artificial chemicals and endocrine disruptors, and a diet of processed food made from wheat, corn, soy, sugar, and sick, corn-fed animals laced with antibiotics. It's true that food supplies are more regular and food distribution safer and more reliable, but this benefit has primarily accrued to industrialized countries, while in places in Africa, Latin America and Asia where food is exported, famines are still common.
In a paper on hunter-gatherers, researchers write:
The Agricultural Revolution began about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, later spread to other regions of the globe, and drastically altered the diet and lifestyle that had shaped the human genome for the previous 2 million plus years. Some of the more significant dietary changes were the use of cereal grains as staple foods, the introduction of non-human milk, domesticated meats, legumes and other cultivated plant foods, and later widespread use of sucrose and alcoholic beverages.Without expensive, high-tech allopathic medicine and the dramatic interventions of modern life, it’s likely that we would have much worse health outcomes than people even in the very recent past.
Nevertheless it was the Industrial Revolution (with the widespread use of refined vegetable oils, refined cereal grains and refined sugars) and the Modern Age (with the advent of the "junk food" industry, generalized physical inactivity, introduction of various pollutants, avoidance of sun exposure, and reduction in sleep time and quality coupled with increased chronic psychological stress) that brought about the most disruptive and maladaptive changes, which may have serious pathophysiological consequences. For instance, chronic psychological stress, environmental pollution and smoking are associated with low-grade chronic inflammation, which is one of the main causes of insulin resistance.
Moreover, low grade chronic inflammation is involved in all stages of the atherosclerotic process and is increasingly recognized as a universal mechanism in various chronic degenerative diseases such as autoimmune diseases, certain cancers, neuropsychiatric diseases and osteoporosis. Furthermore, some environmental pollutants, including pesticides and various industrial chemicals, may act as endocrine disruptors, hence being suspected of playing a causal role in hormone-dependent cancers (such as breast and prostate cancer), insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, obesity, and CVD [cardiovascular diseases].
Insufficient sleep (fewer than 6 hours per 24-hour day)is also associated with low-grade chronic inflammation and worsening insulin resistance as well as increased risks for obesity, type 2 diabetes and CVD. This information is relevant in light of a recent cross-sectional population-based study showing that 28% of US adults sleep 6 or less hours per 24 hour period. Moreover social and work pressure, as well as exposure to light at atypical biologic times (a very recent phenomenon in recent evolutionary history), introduce a disruption of the normal circadian rhythm, which is believed to play a key role in various diseases...Perhaps even more important is the chronic vitamin D deficiency brought about by novel cultural and geographic changes in human behavior.
Another important lifestyle change is physical inactivity which Booth et la. call "an ancient enemy." They make a compelling case for its possible causal role in insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, angina, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, stroke, intermittent claudication, gallstones, various types of cancer, age related cognitive dysfunction, sarcopenia, and osteopenia, among other diseases.
Regarding dietary changes, it should be mentioned that, in the US, dairy products, cereal grains (especially the refined form), refined sugars, refined vegetable oil and alcohol make up 70% of the total daily energy consumed. As pointed out by Cordain et al, these types of food would have contributed little or none of the energy in a typical preagricultural hominin diet. These modern foods introduced during the Neolithic, Industrial, and Modern eras have adversely affected the following nutritional characteristics:
1.) Micronutrient density
3.) Net acid load
4.) Antinutrient content and inflammatory potential
5.) Glycemic load, fiber and fructose
6.) Macronutrient distribution
7.) Omega-6 /Omaga-3 ratio
In that paper on hunter-gatherers, the same researchers found:
1.) Lower blood pressure and no link between age and blood pressure.
2.) Persistent insulin sensitivity (insulin resistance is liked to obesity and diabetes)
3.) Lower BMI and height/waist ratio
4.) Greater VO2 max
5.) Better visual acuity
6.) Better bone health and lower fracture rates.
Another line of evidence supporting the superior health markers of hunter-gatherers and other traditional populations comes from the historical records of explorers, adventurers, and frontiersmen, which invariably described the populations they encountered as being healthy, lean, fit, and free of the signs of chronic, degenerative diseases. But perhaps even more important than these observations are the medical and anthropological reports showing a low incidence of chronic degenerative diseases such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, acne, and even myopia in hunter-gatherers, traditional pastoralists, and horticulturalists compared with Western populations and even ancient Egyptians and medieval Europeans.And the fact that hunter-gatherers don’t suffer from age-related diseases only because none of them lived to old age is wrong. Similarly, Gurven and Kaplan write:
Degenerative diseases [among hunter-gatherers] are relatively few, confined largely to problems early in infancy and late-age cerebrovascular problems, as well as attributions of "old age" in the absence of obvious symptoms of pathology. Heart attacks and strokes appear rare and do not account for these old-age deaths, which tend to occur when sleeping...Obesity is rare, hypertension is low, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are low, and maximal oxygen uptake is high...To our knowledge there have been no focused studies or mention of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or other forms of dementia.But aside from all of the statistics, just look around you. Do the people walking around in the airport or the supermarket look healthy to you? You see middle-aged people on mobile scooters, grade-school children with inhalers, toddlers wearing eyeglasses, and teenagers winded by walking up stairs. People are tired and overweight. They look stressed out. Hospitals are the becoming largest industry in America. Everyone is taking a raft of pills just to make it through another day. Does this look like progress to you?
We may now get two lifetimes instead of one, but thanks to our modern lifestyles, both lifetimes are equally miserable.
In the final entry in this series, I will argue, somewhat unconventionally, that even though hunter-gatherers lived a shorter number of years as measured by a calendar (which they did not have) or by the number on a death certificate (which they also did not have), in a very real sense, they actually lived longer lives! We’ll see why next time.
All that light pollution is wasting energy AND making you sick (Grist)
A Dry Pipeline for Psychiatric Drugs (New York Times)
A Glut of Antidepressants (New York Times)
Who: Suicide Leading Cause of Death Worldwide (Voice of America)
Cancer: A global threat (BBC)
Cancer Cases Rising At An Alarming Rate Worldwide (NPR)
China's 'cancer villages' pay price (BBC)
C-section 'may double risk of childhood obesity' (BBC)
Caesareans 'raise allergy risk' (BBC)
The surprising reason Americans might be obese, anxious and depressed (Salon)
Analysis: Antibiotic apocalypse (BBC)
US hospitals can expose you to 'superbugs': CDC (CNBC)
Will today's children die earlier than their parents? (BBC)
Obesity quadruples to nearly one billion in developing world (BBC)
Global population of obese and overweight tops 2.1bn (BBC)
Child asthma rates quadruple (BBC)
A depressing sign of America’s obesity problem: fatter crash test dummies (Washington Post)
Long Lives Made Humans Human (Slate)
12 facts about depression and suicide in America (Vox)
Living In Cities May Literally Be Driving Us Insane (Treehugger)
The World's Population Is Unlikely To Stabilize This Century (io9)
Even World War III Won't Prevent A Population Bomb, Say Scientists (io9)
Humanity Now Needs 1.5 Earths (Global Footprint Network)
Half of global wildlife populations declined since 1970, says WWF (Christian Science Monitor)
World population to reach seven billion, says UN (BBC)
Massive rise in Asian eye damage (BBC)
'Night shift link' to ovarian cancer (BBC)
Shift work link to 'increased risk of heart problems' (BBC)
Why not even exercise will undo the harm of sitting all day—and what you can do about it (Quartz)
The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization (PDF). Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology.
'The Oil We Eat' Following the Food Chain back to Iraq (Harper's)