Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weekend Post - Healthier than ever

A few months I was parking my car at my kid’s school. A young guy approached me as I left the car and asked if he could talk with me. I had a few minutes to spare and he seemed polite. I didn’t think he was going to mug me, I suspected he was trying to sell something.

He asked whether I was worried about my children’s diet. I told him that I wasn’t particularly worried which seemed to surprise him. I told him that I thought my kids have a fairly healthy diet. They probably get through a few too many chips but they’re just as likely to be found munching an apple. Ignoring this he started a lecture on the evils of “processed” and “convenience” food. His claim was that the chemicals, additives and junk in all this evil food was causing global ill-health and premature death. He suggested that if we eat organic, healthier food (and buy his pointless herbal concoctions) these problems would go away. He asked me why I think people lived longer in the past than they do now?

For a moment my brain stopped working and I stood there speechless. Was he serious? Did he really believe that in the past people were healthier than we are today?

He was, of course, comprehensively, completely and utterly wrong. We are the most fortunate group of people that has ever lived. No population is as lucky as we are today. No population in the history of the world has lived as long as we do or been as healthy.

Yes, I mean even in Botswana. I’m not just talking about places like Japan, Iceland and Australia where people seem to go on and on, I mean here too. Despite what we heard a few years ago, when the impact of HIV and AIDS was the centre of our attention, as a nation we have achieved a staggering amount.

Look at the facts. According to the figures, a baby born in Botswana in 2004 was expected to live, on average and if the mortality rate stayed the same as that in 2004 throughout his or her life, to the age of 31. Babies born now can be expected, if our much reduced mortality rate remains the same as it is now, almost to 60. And that’s the life expectancy at birth. If a kid survives the first few years of it’s life it can be expected to last a lot longer than 60.

Of course I’m not denying that HIV will continue to have an impact. However the success of anti-retroviral drugs is plain to see. We probably all know someone who we’ve seen close to the end but who is now thriving and enjoying life to the full because of the medication they’ve taking.

Perhaps my favourite statistic about the benefits of medicine involves our success with the Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission program. Normally a HIV+ pregnant mother has roughly a 40% risk of passing HIV to her child during childbirth. After PMTCT the risk dropped to lower than 4% and it’s dropped even further subsequently. Science and medicine did that.

So ARVs are extending the lifespan of our HIV+ siblings but what about diet? Wasn’t my car park friend right about the poisons and toxins in our food? No, he was wrong about that as well.

There is, sit down before you read this, no scientific evidence that food produced in traditional ways is any better for you than food produced using “artificial” fertilisers and pesticides. None whatsoever. In fact there is a lot of evidence that conventional fertilisers pose a very significant risk to human health. That’s not surprising when you think about it. Do you really want traces of raw cow poo on your fruit and vegetables?

There isn’t much evidence that the reverse is true either. Food produced using modern techniques is no better or worse for you than the traditional methods but one thing HAS changed massively. Food is now produced much more efficiently. The world’s population has almost reached 7 billion and we’re still producing food to feed everyone. Of course there are problems with getting it to the right people at the right time but that’s always been the case.

So here’s my suggestion for the week. Rather than pretending there was a distant age when things were better let’s look back and remember the massive proportion of children that never made it to their 5th birthday, the number of people who died of horrible diseases in their 20s and 30s and the endless sequence of famines. Let’s remember that in ancient Rome life expectancy was less than 30 and it didn’t get much better until the beginning of the 20th century.

Let’s also remember what helped us achieve all of. Science and medicine.


For a comparison of life expectancy data from around the world Wikipedia is a good starting point. It's also worth understanding what "life expectancy" actually means as well.

For details of Botswana's current life expectancy figures see here for data from the CIA World Factbook. Take a look also at the graph for death rate.

For a story on the impact of PMTCT see here.

A starting point for thinking about organic food is the Skeptoid podcast, in particular the episode on organic food here. This is where I found this piece from the American Council on Science and Health. Not worried about poo on your food? The US Food and Drug Administration are.

And that figure of 7 billion people? We'll get there later this month.

1 comment:

Enter_Skitarii said...

I think people are so obsessed, near sighted and fatalistic nowadays that they get amnesia over how bad things used to be. Of course there are also those who use a certain book of mythology as a history text, and they also tend to be obsessed over the "last days" we are apparently living in that they're totally blind to the facts.

Frankly, the only plausible reason I see for going organic is to minimise environmental impact, but with the world's population growing at such an astounding rate I welcome the modern farming methods and genetic engineering that will allow us to stave off a global food crisis with open arms.