In our last column we dealt with the belief that we now live 25 to 40 years longer than our contemporaries 100 years ago. This increase in the average life expectancy is largely related to the drastic reduction in the high infant mortality due to conquest of the infectious diseases. Around 1900, every sixth baby died before reaching the first year of life. However, some 50 years later these rates had precipitously dropped thanks to the advances in public health and medicine.
Degenerative Diseases — a Misnomer
Another myth centers around the concept of “Degenerative Diseases” which has given rise to the assumption that we have so much more of these diseases because our ancestors died while still too young to experience the diseases of “old age.” But the expression “degenerative disease” is really a misnomer. For years people fatalistically accepted the idea that circulation-related diseases, such as coronary heart diseases and stroke, as well as diseases such as cancer, diabetes, diverticulosis, arthritis and other ailments were diseases of old age and therefore to be expected.
Nothing could be further from the truth, because in Western society 100 years ago:
- Most circulation-related diseases were virtually unknown. The first description of coronary artery disease and “heart attacks” appeared in the medical literature in 1910. Today these diseases are responsible for every third death.
- Cancers of the breast, colon, prostate, and lungs were virtually unknown. These cancers now claim one out of every four American lives.
- Similarly, very few diabetics were known then. Yet today diabetes rates are increasing with frightening speed. Diabetes and its complications now represent one of the most frequent causes of death.
These diseases are actually not “degenerative.” They are not necessarily the result of growing older. The fact that an increasing number of younger people are suffering from them refutes this as does their increase to near-epidemic proportions despite everything medical science can do.
Modern epidemiology (the study of disease differences in different environments and populations) is unraveling the mystery: most of these modern killer diseases are largely lifestyle-related. They are basically diseases of affluence—too much eating and drinking, too much smoking and stress, and too little exercise and sleep. In the absence of effective treatments and cures, the best medical science can do with these lifestyle-related diseases is to treat and manage the symptoms. Perhaps it is time to confront the causes — how we live.
Dr. Hans Diehl is the director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute of Loma Linda, California, who promotes a lifestyle changes to reverse diseases. He founded CHIP, the Complete Health Improvement Program, in 1988 after conducting a four-week lifestyle change program in British Columbia in a community of about 5,000 people. About 400 people took the challenge on and became part of the first CHIP program.