In the past decade, at least two major American magazines and numerous news outlets have highlighted stories about the long-lived and amazingly healthy citizens on the remote Greek island of Ikaria after Dan Buettner published his best-selling book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. These fortunate people, who suffer far less of the typical “Western” diseases I will speak about in a moment, enjoy incredible longevity and vigor far exceeding the populations of other regions. Their good fortune is not merely due to favorable genetics, although I’m sure that has some bearing. No, it is a perfect storm of healthy habits that keeps these lucky people going, and going happily well into their 90s and beyond. In fact, a staggering one in three Ikarians live to be 90, compared to only one in nine baby-boomer Americans! How is this so?
First, let’s talk about “Western” disease, or more commonly, the “disease of affluent societies.” These are conditions that we Americans are sadly all too familiar with: cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diverticulosis of the colon and even appendicitis. These conditions, along with type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, gout, vitamin D deficiency, depression, obesity and even acne are, by and large, byproducts of a lifestyle that has developed as a natural consequence of the Industrial Revolution. In short, the brutal combination of terrible diets (high in salt, sugar and fat, and low in fiber) and physical inactivity (fueled by a sedentary lifestyle from our over-reliance on technology, exacerbated by widespread computer addiction disorders) has led to the health crisis we have in our country today. And that is merely the set-up for disease. The drivers are even more insidious and complex and we need look no further than the seductions of Madison Avenue advertising agencies to find the perpetrators of health hoaxes.
Our culture is one where quick fixes are the norm. Instead of adopting healthy habits related to diet, exercise, social networks and mindfulness early on in life, most of us are conditioned to think that a pill or treatment can solve our health problems. After all, human nature favors ease and comfort, and since it takes insight, effort and determination to achieve our health goals, oftentimes we take the easy way out. This is revealed so often in commercials we see on TV, where the obese hard-hat wearing construction worker brags that he doesn’t let heartburn stop him from eating chilidogs because there’s a pill to take care of that. (The alternative—that he would forgo the fat-, nitrate- and salt-laden “meal” and eat more wisely—is not an option.)
Or how about the ads for the incredibly cheap but nutritionally disastrous fast-food meals we consume, whether it’s double cheeseburgers with fries and a soda or meat-covered pizzas with cheese baked into the dough, accompanied by cinnamon sticks or ice cream for dessert? (What’s next? A side order of insulin?) So many people are conditioned to eating such abominations that their brains become wired to crave the sugar, salt and fat contents inherent in our Western diets, and are deluded into relying on medication to mitigate, in their minds, whatever medical problems come their way.
This brings me to my major point. After practicing medicine for nearly four decades, I am convinced that the only way to improved health in our Western society is not merely through advanced medicine, treatments or surgeries, but a radical cultural shift. The people of Ikaria don’t need such a shift, because their life habits are so well attuned to the natural rhythms of human biology that good health is the natural result of the way they live. These habits, which include a diet high in natural greens, herbal teas, goat’s milk, olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, along with a strong social network (for them it is related to religion, mostly), regular walking and hill climbing, daily naps and a minimal urgency with the concept of TIME all constitute their own natural recipe for good health. The result? Longer life, vastly reduced heart disease and diabetes, a virtual absence of Alzheimer’s disease, 20% fewer cases of cancer, less depression—the list goes on.
Yes, I hear what you’re saying: “There’s no way I can live like that! My habits are so set and it’s hard to break them!” I hear you and understand. I sympathize. And as Bill Clinton (talk about a change in diet!) might have said, “I sympathize.” But, I don’t accept that you can’t adopt the majority of the healthy habits the Ikarians live by. It may take more time and effort, but aren’t you worth it for yourself, your family and your friends? Yes, bad calories are cheaper than good ones. Fast, junky food is convenient and relatively cheap. The economics of obesity could constitute a book! But in the long run, the cost of poor health is exponentially higher. Don’t have time for an hour of physical activity a day? WRONG! Make time. You are worth it!
And don’t rely on Madison Avenue and their Big Pharma clients to have your back, because they don’t! All they want is what’s in your wallet! Resist, expend the effort and live better and longer. Change your own personal culture and change your life. A little can go a long way!
In the coming months, I will be discussing other ways you can improve your health, navigate the health care system and protect yourself from medical errors.