by Dr. Iain Corness
Hooray! The wheel has been invented!
I came across an “interesting” article
this week, where it was claimed that researchers at the University of Zurich
have for the first time broken down the effects of leading a healthy
lifestyle into numbers.
The comprehensive 30 year study looked at the World Health Organization’s
four behavioral risk factors for conditions such as heart disease, cancer,
diabetes, and chronic respiratory disorders.
Researchers compared the tobacco, fruit and alcohol consumption, as well as
physical activity levels, of 16,721 people aged 16 to 90 from 1977 to 1993,
and studied the impact of their lifestyle on participant death rates up to
Unsurprisingly, cigarettes have a detrimental effect on mortality rates,
with smokers having a 57 percent higher risk of dying prematurely. An
unhealthy diet, not enough physical activity, and alcohol abuse can each
result in an elevated mortality risk of around 15 percent.
When all four risk factors are combined, the prospect of an early death
increases dramatically. For example, the probability of a 75 year old man
with all risk factors surviving the next 10 years is 35 percent (bad luck
about the other 65 percent); without the risk factors, there is a 67 percent
chance he will live for another 10 years. For women, these percentages are
47 and 74 percent respectively.
Poor lifestyle choices, however, had little effect on death rates until
people made it to the 65 to 75 age bracket, when the death rates of smokers,
the physically unfit, and people with poor diets started to rise
dramatically, said Dr Brian Martin, who led the research group.
Now, I am all for research into risk factors, which is why I am a promoter
of check-ups. Find the risk factors and do something about it before you
reach 50, as far as heart disease, for example.
So what new information has the University of Zurich come up with? We
already knew that smoking is a health (and wealth) hazard. Poor diet makes
you more likely to develop coronary artery disease and diabetes. Excess
alcohol leads to liver failure, is also something else we have known for
decades. Remain active and you can ward off Alzheimer’s. (If you can
remember how to spell it - you haven’t got it!)
Now, have you ever wondered why the questionnaire for life insurance asks
whether any close member of your family has ever suffered from diabetes,
epilepsy and other ailments and then also asks you to write down how old
your parents or brothers and sisters were when they died, and what they died
from? All that they, the insurance companies, are doing is finding out the
relative likelihood (or ‘risk’) of your succumbing early to an easily
identifiable disease. This does not need a postgraduate Masters degree in
rocket science. It needs a cursory application of family history.
If either of your parents had diabetes, your elder brother has diabetes,
your younger brother has diabetes and your cousin has diabetes, what are the
odds on your getting (or already having) diabetes? Again this does not need
Einstein. The answer is pretty damn high! And yet, I see families like this,
where the individual members are totally surprised and amazed when one of
them falls ill, goes to hospital, and diabetes is diagnosed.
Look at it this way - your future is being displayed by your family’s past.
This could be considered frightening, when your father, his brother and your
grandfather all died very early from heart attacks. Or, this could be
considered as life saving, if it pushes you towards looking at you own
cardiac health and overcoming an apparently disastrous medical history.
This is where careful application of family history can be life saving. If
there is a common thread, then go looking for it. Going back to the family
with diabetes, what should the younger members do? Well, if it were me, I
would be having my blood sugar checked at least once a year from the age of
20. Any time I had reason to visit the doctor in between, I would also ask
to have the level checked. Medical knowledge can be a powerful predictor,
even before the University of Zurich, even though they showed very salient