Husband, on returning home from a Super Bowl party, groans, “I have the worst indigestion.”
Wife: “Well, what did you eat?”
Husband: “Two plates of nachos, 3 slices of pizza, a chili dog, 4 steak kabobs, spinach artichoke dip with chips, chicken tenders with mustard sauce and about a dozen beers.”
Wife, sardonically, “Yeah, it’s hard to know what caused the indigestion when you ate so many different foods.”
This reductionist attitude makes for a good joke, but it’s no joke when applied to staying healthy throughout a long life. Are so-called “Diseases of Aging” diseases at all, or are they largely the result of a stressful Western lifestyle that ignores centuries of human evolution and place demands on the body that wear it down over time, thus creating “Diseases of Aging”?
Research has shown that poor health does not have to be an inevitable consequence of aging. Older adults who practice healthy behaviors, take advantage of clinical preventive services, and continue to engage with family and friends are more likely to remain healthy, live independently, and incur fewer health-related costs. ~ Centers for Disease Control.
I’d like to make a distinction between an infectious disease and a chronic condition.
An infectious disease has a definable and specific cause, such as a mosquito bite causing malaria or stepping on a rusty nail causing tetanus or a virus causing polio. The start of the disease is traceable to a singular event. While lifestyle and health habits may influence how the body reacts to the invasion, there is no correlation between, for example, taking Vitamin E supplements and preventing that nail from coming up through the carpet and scratching your naked foot.
A condition is a complex combination of symptoms caused by a multitude of factors. Chronic conditions include heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Years of physical self-abuse and neglect commingle to create these chronic conditions. There is no one “magic bullet” that reduces complex conditions to singular causes and thus cures them. Lifestyle factors are major contributors to these conditions, and making lifestyle changes can prevent and reverse many of them. According to the CDC,
Four modifiable health risk behaviors—lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption—are responsible for much of the illness, suffering, and early death related to chronic diseases.
Although “genetic disposition” is frequently cited as a factor in the development of chronic conditions, it is rarely the only, or even the deciding factor. Thus, with chronic conditions, there are no victims. Though millions of dollars are spent each year on research for new drugs and cures, the truth is that we are at cause for much of the decline we fear.
Despite the abundance of knowledge about the causes of Diseases of Aging, there is almost universal denial that we are complicit in our own downfall. Here are just three examples from CDC:
- More than one-third of all adults do not meet recommendations for aerobic physical activity based on the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, and 23% report no leisure-time physical activity at all in the preceding month.
- In 2007, less than 22% of high school students and only 24% of adults reported eating 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
- More than 43 million American adults (approximately 1 in 5) smoke.
The resulting waste in lives and resources fuels a debate about “the cost of elders to society” as if elders are not part of and therefore not contributors to society. Let’s be contributors by taking control of our own health and modeling healthy habits for future generations.
What are you doing to stay well? Post your comment below.