Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Life Expectancy Goes Up but Risk-reduction lectures Continue

Bravo! to Rob Lyons at Spiked. Since it’s now apparent that life expectancy has increased almost everywhere and is at historic high levels in much of the developed world, Lyons asks the logical question:  why is the public health system still scolding everyone about what people eat and how fat the average person is?

A paper by David Leon in this month’s International Journal of Epidemiology showed the dramatic increase in life expectancy — the median age at death, that is.  It has reached over 85 years for women in Japan, but it’s high even in countries where longevity was relatively low a generation ago.  Cheeringly, US life expectancy at birth is now 78 years; in the UK it’s 80.  And it’s even higher in some countries of western continental Europe.  Here are the graphs for different parts of the world from Leon’s paper, showing trends since 1970:

Life expectancy since 1970

Lyons has gone after the anti-obesity crusaders before (as well as related topics at his smart blog on contemporary food confusion, Panic On A Plate).  Now, he’s particularly disturbed by the sermonizing about eating. “You can’t even have a pie and a pint without someone telling you it will kill you, it seems,” Lyons writes at Spiked.

And, really, it’s even worse than that — because it’s not just eating that’s the subject of the lecturing.  It might be true that you will live longer if you give up smoking, cut your salt intake, drop your BMI down to 24.99, exercise four times per week for at least 20 minutes each time, get immunized against flu and human papillomavirus, drink in moderation, and take naps.  But unfortunately there’s not a bit of evidence that any of that — apart from the decline in smoking — has contributed to increasing longevity.

And of course, even with smoking cessation, there’s no telling whether it would make any difference to you — only on average.

So why are the public health messages so far away from what really matters — basically, prenatal care, postnatal care, and wealth (with its concomitant, standard of living)?  Well, there’s a puzzle.

What’s the point of having an industry whose main aim is to make sure that people are constantly in fear that they are doing something that will kill them — even as it becomes apparent that most of what people do is only making us live longer?   Lyons calls it Good News Omission Mentality Syndrome (GNOMES).

I ask you:  could it have something to do with control?  And the desire to sell products?

Media Culture: Beyond Fat and Salt?

Over at Media, Culture & Health, Steven Gorelick notes that a story on salt and the food industry, which appeared on page A1 of the print NY Times on Sunday, would not have made the front page in the past.

What has changed?  How does the story of wrangling over the sodium content of American food merit space in the main news sections of the most influential media — even the front pages of the NY Times or LA Times?

1.  One answer is that health occupies much of the American conversation today.  A visitor from another planet watching our TV news shows or reading the main newspapers would have to be forgiven for thinking that Americans are dying from a multitude of irrepressible disease threats.  We can’t seem to stop talking about how to improve our health.

(In fact, as Michael Haines notes at the Economic History Association website, U.S. life expectancy almost doubled between 1850 and 1960, from 39.5 years to 70.7 years; since then it has increased slowly, and is now estimated to be about 78.2 years.  In other words, health wasn’t a matter of news much during the time when longevity was improving dramatically, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th.  By the time health became a cultural preoccupation, the majority of Americans were living well past middle age.)

2.  Another answer, perhaps more important is that when we talk about health today we mean personal responsibility.

When I began studying epidemiology, in the late 1970s, public health essentially meant disease control.  Yes, lip service was paid to so-called health promotion — much was made of the World Health Organization’s definition of health, promulgated in 1946:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

But no metric for complete well-being was widely recognized.  And the usual epidemiologic measures of incidence and mortality rates, life expectancy, and so forth seemed to work just fine as ways of understanding why some groups of people lived longer and more capable lives, while others lived miserably and died young.

Sometime since then, the health sector, including public health, has turned to individual responsibility as the key to well-being.

If each of us is responsible for his or her own health, then it’s our own fault if we get sick.  Naturally, advice abounds:  buckle up, use a condom, eat less fat, know your cholesterol level, wash your hands, use mosquito repellent containing DEET, wear sunblock, eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day, lower your stress.

The advice adds up to this:  know your limits.  Federally sponsored research tells us that self-control is ontagious.

The personal-responsibility view of health says, “control your appetites.”

3.  But let’s think about another change:  more people are concerned about the American diet.  As noted last week, the food movement has given us ways to think about eating that go beyond the tiresome story of obesity and hypertension — Beyond Fat and Salt, you could say.

Of course, the main media outlets still tell the food story in Fat-and-Salt language, as the news articles in the NY Times, LA Times, and others show.  It’s the food industry vs. the foodies, or the food industry vs. public health, or the food industry and public health vs. appetites — anyway, somebody against somebody in the name of health.

The media aren’t quite past obesity and hypertension yet.  But as the culture moves beyond obsessive self-inspection in the name of health, no doubt media will, too.