Sunday, 19 March 2017

Some of Aging May Be Man-Made

Our lifespan and many other aspects of our quality of life have greatly improved over the centuries. We came from a world where almost all of us lived in extreme poverty and half died by 30, to a world where global life expectancy is 72 and counting, less than 10% of us are extremely poor and an increasing number of us have the freedom to live on our own terms. But some of our progress isn't really progress, as it has come to the detriment of our health. What went wrong, and how can we live a more balanced life, with the best of both worlds?

Rainforest in Bolivia. Source: Elias Bizannes
Recently, a study emerged on the Tsimane, a hunter-gatherer society in the Bolivian Amazon. At about 16,000 people, they are a small culture, but one of the most researched indigenous groups in the world. For this study, 705 people first spent a day canoeing, as usual, then took a 6-hour drive to the nearest city so doctors could take computer scans of their hearts and measure their weight, heart rate, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. In exchange for their time, they were given small gifts such as thread and yarn, things they can actually use. After all this, it was found that the average middle-aged Tsimane has arteries that are 28 years younger than those of average Westerners! When compared to over 6,800 Americans, they were one-fifth as likely to have heart disease, and 9 out of 10 had absolutely no risk of developing it. The Tsimane don't drink or smoke often, their traditional diet is low in added fat and sugar, and they exercise four to seven hours daily on average. However, those using motorised canoes and eating processed foods are showing signs that they are at risk of heart disease, such as higher blood cholesterol. Fortunately this means that lifestyle has power over genetics. Unfortunately (for some), it means that we do have to restructure our lives and society to allow for more incidental exercise. Perhaps cycling to work and other places should be made easier; and workplaces should be re-imagined in a way that physical activity is built-in to the job.

Similar situations have been seen around the world, when people switch from traditional, unprocessed foods to processed, "modern" diets. Often, significant degeneration has taken place within one or two generations, and people of different towns or islands were found to have radically different states of health depending on whether they continued to eat traditional foods, or adopted modern products. In conclusion, the overzealous modernisation of the past century really does need to be tempered by an acknowledgement of the nature of our bodies; we are not meant to be entirely dependent on machines.

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