When I was a medical student in the nineteen sixties, the diseases we studied were the old ones, the infections: syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox, poliomyelitis, diphtheria. We never see those now; vaccination, hygeine, and antibiotics have all but eradicated them. Heart attacks, cancer and stroke are now the major killers, but were they always there waiting to strike if people lived long enough or is there something toxic about life in the 21st century?
As major infections have been eradicated and war, poverty and famine have faded from our collective consciousness, doctors and their patients have become more sensitive to ‘stress-related’ ‘life-style’ and auto-immune diseases. GP surgeries and out-patient clinics throughout the UK are crammed with people with hay fever, asthma, coeliac disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, autistic spectrum disorder, depression, Crohn’s Disease and a plethora of other allergic and immunological diseases, some of which were unknown 50 years ago. 40% of the British population now consider themselves to have a long term illness, 60% are overweight. Millions of people are racked by back pains, tormented by abdominal gripes, alarmed by ringing in their ears, tortured by headaches, exhausted by sleep deprivation, frustrated with constipation, debilitated with nausea and faintness, overwhelmed by the burden of obesity, terrified by shortness of breath or palpitations or just too sick and tired to cope. Such everyday illnesses may not kill them but they seriously compromise their comfort, mobility, pleasure of eating and social interaction. Too many people, it seems, are getting old before their time.
Disease occurs as a result of the interaction between us and our environment. But this is not some modern plague. It is more an expression of how we have evolved socially. the way we have live our lives. The changes that have occurred in the way we live, the food we eat, the work we do, how active we are, even the air we breathe and the water we drink can alter the expression not only of our human genome but also the far greater number of genes that encode for the metabolism of the myriad micro-organisms that live on us and inside us. Together these affect the sensitivity of our immune surveillance and our neuroendocrine control, resetting the function of our mind and body and releasing a new type of malaise, for which traditional medicine, a pill for every ill, no longer seems to apply .
So are our modern ailments all about the changes induced in our bodily systems by a combination of the food we eat, how active we are, the stress we are under, our health beliefs, the toxins we consume and the medicines we take? Is our personal health too difficult to be left to the health professionals? ‘Health’ services may be wonderful at detecting and treating life threatening disease, but not so good at keeping people well. While they may claim to promote ‘evidence-based’ healthy solutions for individual systemic illness, ‘we may all be too vulnerable to the influence of such externally validated truths’. Treatment of modern illness does not have to be all about deprivation or taking more toxic substances. We don’t have to be passive recipients of a health care system that doesn’t have all the answers.
Sure, if we are seriously ill, our doctors may be able to put it right, but until somebody comes up with a better solution, our health and well-being are our personal responsibility, a matter of choice, an ongoing process of adapting our beliefs and behaviour to the changes that occur in our lives, living within the limitations imposed by society, but still realising our creativity and changing the outcome. Health professionals can give us advice on healthy eating, stress management, sleep hygiene, exercise, work life balance, interaction with nature and how to cope with a toxic environment, but there is no simple answer and we all have to take the advice that is helpful and find our own ways through.
So take responsibility for your own health, engage, realise less is often more, commit to meaningful change, find your own way, but pace yourself, allow time to make it a habit, discover your own pleasure and wellness in a positive and healthy approach to life., .Living longer need not be a gradual deterioration in function and well being, it can be a celebration of wisdom and experience and the youthful vitality to enjoy them.