By Dan Miller
Imagine you could travel in back in time and talk to your great (or even great, great) grandparents about what life is like in the United States today. Once you’d showed them your nifty iPhone and broken it to them that no one has a flying car yet, you’d almost certainly describe the wonders of modern medicine.
You’d explain how imaging equipment and powerful microscopes provide physicians and scientists with clearer, more detailed views of the human body than ever before—we can even see and understand how our bodies work at the sub-molecular level! You’d say it’s amazing what surgeons can fix during minimally-invasive, outpatient surgeries that harness cutting-edge laparoscopic equipment and lasers. And pharmaceutical advancements mean that diseases like hypertension and cancer are no longer the death sentences they were for our great-grandparents.
And yet here’s one of the most brutal ironies of our time:
Despite all of these jaw-dropping medical advances, Americans are sicker than ever before. Consider just a few recent statistics:
- Americans older than 65 are sicker than their peers in 10 developed countries.
- 36 percent of American seniors suffer from thee or more chronic illnesses.
- Among Americans of all ages, the death rate from non-communicable diseases—such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer—is higher than 15 other developed nations, according to this report.
- Among developed countries, the United States ranks 26th for healthy life expectancy.
When it comes to health span, “the U.S. has been doing something wrong for a long time,” observed Allan Detsky, MD, PhD in the New Yorker article cited above.
You might assume that we Americans have these and other health challenges because of genetic bad luck. Don’t. While 10 percent of what goes on with your body is due to genetic factors, the remaining 90 percent of what’s going in in your body is actually your genetic code responding to environmental factors.
And you’re a complicated organism. Your body is 500 trillion cells all working together to make you you. Each of your cells has 100-1000 mitochondria cranking out the energy that fuels your existence. You even house a complete ecosystem. Did you know that there are 300 trillion bacterial organisms living in your gut? To complicate things even further, your genetic code is ill-suited to respond to many of the environmental factors you face today.
Our genetic code is the result of thousands of years of human evolution, and our bodies have adapted to live on earth as it was in the distant past, a time when we were Paleolithic hunter gatherers who lived in small social groups. But over the past couple hundred years, humans in the developed world have been changing our environments rapidly—far more rapidly than the pace of human evolution.
Our Paleolithic genetic code must cope with environmental stressors our ancestors never imagined—stressors associated with the industrial revolution, urbanization, activity-crammed nights fueled by electric lighting and other entertainments, factory farming, easy access to far more calories than we need, long commutes in urban environments, long periods of immobility as we labor in the knowledge economy, and the perceived need to be connected 24/7 in an age of globalization.
Hacking Our Way to Health
Biologist Daniel Lieberman discusses this problem of old-school genetic codes. He calls our genetic response to hyper-modern environments “dysevolution.” When our old genes try to cope in these new environments, gradual changes occur. These changes can lead to functional or chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and mental illnesses. We can prevent the development of the functional and chronic diseases that lead to aging and shorter health spans. To do so, we’ve got to alter our lifestyles so that they more closely resemble those of our Paleolithic ancestors.
Are you gaping at me in disbelief, in derision even? As a health coach, this is where I sometimes lose people. “Dan,” they exclaim, “I’m a busy working person who must make a living. Who can live like a Neanderthal? I don’t have the bandwidth to learn all of that stuff and I certainly don’t have the time.”
I get that, and as a health coach I want to help you live a long, healthy life even as you work hard to make an impact on the world through your work, by raising family, by being active in your communities, and all the other things we busy 21st-century humans do. To that end, I’ve distilled what I’ve learned into simple steps in six categories.
In my next post, I’ll focus on stress, and I’ll teach you some simple hacks that will help you find some Paleolithic zen.