We're Living Longer Than Ever Before, but Are We Healthier?

There is no one variable, no single magic bullet, miracle food or diet, exercise program or supplement that is a panacea for what ails us


America is a land of opportunity and of a promise for a better life. Inherent in those possibilities is the idea that a better life is also a healthier life. So a time where we debate the role of our government, our individual responsibilities, and our collective place in international affairs, is a perfect time to also look into the mirror -- literally.

People often turn to the increasing life expectancy of our population and assume that if that number increases, we must be getting healthier because we are living longer. But that is a bit of statistical deception. The capacity for longevity has not really increased. There are many ancient and more recent records of persons living into their 100s. That currently seems to be the limit. Since we have more people surviving into that range, the average life expectancy rises. The ability for any individual to achieve the century-plus mark has not really changed.

If our maximum capability has not increased, why are more people living longer? There are several reasons. Childbirth, both to mother and offspring, is a substantially safer undertaking. Through vaccination, many scourges like smallpox have been largely eradicated. When was the last time you actually saw someone with the mumps? Expansion upon the natural pharmacopeia has allowed for the treatment of potentially deadly pathogens. Sanitation has played a huge role reducing potential exposure to these agents of disease. Knowledge of how to treat physical injuries, garnered from battlefields throughout recorded history and before, substantially increase survival odds.

We are certainly safer than we were in the past, but are we healthier? Are our bodies operating effortlessly in a zone of homeostasis; or are we clawing on the brink like Gollum with our attention inappropriately fixated on some elusive ring -- brass, golden, or otherwise? The French doctor and gourmand Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had noted almost two centuries earlier his book Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, "Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are."

By any measure, we are a population growing -- in girth. Despite a successful government campaign to decrease fat consumption, obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease continue to rise at alarming rates, rates that threaten a health care system ill prepared to deal with prolonged debilitating conditions. To supersize has become an accepted verb. And the items we supersize are laced with ever larger amounts of sugar, salt, and fat. These are substances that long ago helped us survive. As such, the seeking and consumption of them was wired into our physiology. Now we are manipulated by an industry that has us devouring what they serve as they pull our physiological strings. According to some estimates, almost half of every dollar spent on food is spent dining out. This is reflected in the very analysis of our bodies: higher levels of sodium and lower levels of potassium and other essential nutrients and minerals, compounds and ratios found in processed food but not in less adulterated offerings, and an ever earlier age of onset of metabolically complex, enduring disease.

So while we may now be safer, we are not necessarily healthier. There is no one variable, no single magic bullet, miracle food or diet, exercise program or supplement that is a panacea for what ails us. But we all have common sense. We all intuitively know that what lies in a junk food, meat-like, greasy burger is no healthier than sucking in the smoke from something on fire -- like a cigarette. We all have the power to determine the state our own health in our own hands -- the very hand that holds the fork.

Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.