Lifespan and nutrition are an often neglected partnership. This partnership had a huge impact on the way we live today. Why do we consistently neglect the impact of this partnership? This needs some serious discussion.
In the eighties of the last century, as a communication expert, I designed a circular policy decision-making model. I used this model to explain to civil servants and politicians how their decisions transformed into the actions that were supposed to materialize their intended goals. The goals were always aimed at changing citizens’ behavior.
The model was also very helpful in explaining what could go wrong, every step of the way. The model was designed to help to prevent this. I taught them to design their decision-making process by rethinking every step involved, starting from the end of the process, the materialization of their intended goals, and then circling all the way back to their decisions.
During the discussions using the model, I always asked my audience what the flaws were of the model. After all, rarely political decisions materialize as intended. One of the most intriguing flaws they came up with is that many political problems never reach the decision stage.
Related to: The Quality of Food Determines Life Expectancy
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Our limited span of control
I remembered this flaw because I noticed that The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response, in its May 2021 report ‘COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic’, suggests at least 40 recommendations. The huge number of recommendations was a surprise. I do not envy those that will get the task to turn these into political decisions.
However, what surprised me most was that the recommendations are not based on an analysis of the problem: what is COVID-19, what causes it, and is it a pandemic? How many failures do we have to make, before we understand how utterly limited our span of control is? What does this mean?
The Panel-report explains that 150 million people worldwide were infected with the SARS-CoV-2-virus. 3 million people (2% of the 150 million) are assumed to have died of COVID-19, the specific disease caused by this virus. The report does not explain why the other more than 7 billion people were not infected and another 140 million people (2% of these 7 billion) did not die.
Moreover, why did only 3 million people die of the 150 million infected, and not all of them? What was wrong with them? Why did those 7 billion not get infected and why did those 140 million people not die? I thought this would be of some concern and be part of any serious evaluation effort. Not a word’s notice!
Domestication, urbanization, and industrialization
The history of humankind has a long line of these types of crucial failures. Domestication, urbanization, and finally industrialization; just to name a few. These failures produced the huge problems we face today.
These are failures because we can only stay alive in our failed environments using an enormous amount of poisonous chemicals and other unfavorable auxiliary devices, such as the combustion engine.
We call this modern life, a type of life producing many risks: polluted air, water, and soil, and annihilated biodiversity and ecosystems. All essential provisions we depend on. Perhaps these risks are the price we pay for our longevity and good health.
Roughly, from halfway through the 19th century until now our lifespan doubled. Unfortunately, many people attribute our current good health and longevity to modern medical insights. Although there is some truth in this, it is not even half the truth. Let me explain this with two examples from two different perspectives: tuberculosis and penicillin.
In England and Wales in 1838, 4,000 in 1 million people died of tuberculosis each year. That number dropped to about 2,000 in 1882. This is the year Robert Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacillus. This number fell even further to 350 deaths in 1945.
In 1945 the drugs streptomycin and PAS came onto the market to treat tuberculosis. By 1960 the number of tuberculosis deaths had fallen to almost zero. However, tuberculosis did not disappear due to a vaccine. Until this very day, there does not exist an effective vaccine against the tuberculosis bacillus. Streptomycin and PAS are what I call, ‘end-of-the-pipeline’ tools. They repair the damage done.
Tuberculosis disappeared because those who suffered from tuberculosis were forcibly placed in sanatoriums. To prevent them from infecting healthy people they were separated from them. A fact that had already been shared in 1908 in the book The Prevention of Tuberculosis.
Our limited span of control, when it comes to our longevity and modern medical insights, can also be explained from the perspective of a medical tool, which repairs damage done: penicillin.
In 1964 someone finally unraveled why the microbiologist Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. This unraveling starts with the observation that there are myriads of chance developments explaining why other scientists could not replicate Fleming’s discovery.
The particular strain of penicillin, contaminating Fleming’s petri dish and so inciting his discovery, was blown through the window from a laboratory below his. Fleming went on a 14-day holiday, and against all odds, university rules, and his own habit, he left his petri dish with a bacterial compound uncovered on a table in his laboratory.
Next, during his absence, the strain of penicillin, which was blown in his petri dish from the laboratory below, could grow to kill the bacterial compound because of 9 consecutive days of cool weather.
Fleming himself was not interested in further research. He thought that the penicillin he had discovered was too toxic for therapeutic use. Ten years after 1928, others did pick up his discovery, and the Second World War boosted serious scientific research and the production of penicillin on a large scale. From 1944 and onward, it saved many soldiers’ and citizens’ lives.
However, vaccines and antibiotics do make sense! When I was young, a couple of times I got a so-called DKTP-injection. DKTP stands for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and poliomyelitis. In non-industrialized developing countries these diseases still produce many thousands of victims.
In these countries, mainly the very young children are the most vulnerable, once they get infected, many of them die. When a child in these countries is able to circumvent these risks, the chances of getting old in good health are substantial. Their longevity has some interesting advantages, compared to the longevity in industrialized countries.
First of all, in non-industrialized countries, many people live in small farming communities. Because they farm, they have a lot of exercise. Moreover, they don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs, or only in very limited amounts. They’re not fat from fast foods either. Living conditions and life are primitive. Cholesterol and sugar levels are low. Heart and artery failures are non-existent. So how did we take the wrong exit?
Circle of doom
As a matter of fact, the remedies we invented, to curb some of the most lethal threats to humans (such as the DKTP-infectious diseases), coincide with some of the biggest risks we created: polluted air, water, and soil, and the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems.
This probably happened because these two seemingly separate developments were both enabled by domestication, urbanization, and industrialization. As a result, more and more highly complex collaboration, socialization, and institutionalization were required to control the growing amounts of humans in their cramped living conditions.
In a combined effort, citizens, citizen initiatives, companies, and governments, produced education, social welfare, and public medical care systems, providing humans with improved living conditions. And our longevity? What did all these combined efforts contribute to our lifespan?
Lifespan and nutrition
I always believed that the increase in our lifespan was the result of clean water, better hygiene, and our medical regimes. With the arrival of barrels, and later the sewerage system, in particular younger children, less and less died of all kinds of terrible infectious diseases. Medical innovations added the extra safety nets. At least, that is how I thought our lifespan rose.
The related developments of lifespan and nutrition in The Netherlands are an excellent example to prove why I was wrong. There, in 1870 suddenly – almost overnight – the lifespan steadily started to rise. Without exception, regardless of age, gender, income, power, and possession the average lifespan increased.
What had happened? It was quite simple: food prices decreased substantially. This was caused by the mechanization of agriculture in the United States. More crops could be grown and harvested in less time and with less manual labor. As a consequence of the many deaths caused by the American Civil War (1861-1865), there were also fewer farm workers available and there was less demand on the home market. Agricultural prices in the US dropped.
The cheap US-cereals flooded the, apparently competitive, European market. With the same income, people could buy more food. More food and a better and more varied diet improved the physical condition and made people more resistant to diseases and disorders. Moreover, this enabled them to work harder and earn more money, which increased their living standards, and their lifespan, which rose in a steady flow.
Our quality of life
Over time, I learned how our lifespan and nutrition actually relate, and how relative hygienic and medical progress is. The increase of our lifespan can be classified roughly as follows (with the estimated percentage of contribution per cause in parentheses):
- 1870-1900: fundamental shift in the food situation (75%);
- 1900-1940: improvement of hygiene (10%);
- 1945-1970: medical progress (15%).
Although it is reassuring, that as long as we can maintain our food supply at par with the population growth, the impact of food and food production is often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented. The growing body size of modern humans is only one indication that we neglect the importance of food. Is there not a relation between being overweight and the risk of dying from COVID-19 as well?
The negative impact of our food habits and food production on the quality of air, water, and soil, and biodiversity, and the ecosystems we depend upon, are also often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented. It’s about time we stop neglecting the link between our lifespan and nutrition, and the way we organize this partnership.
How do you want to grow old? Please write your wishes in the comment box below.