14th February 2018
The final big-ticket item on my list, of how to avoid CVD and live longer, is poor social interactions, and the strain caused by them, or whatever you want to call this rather difficult to define area. Here we have a whole range of different, interconnected, issues. Childhood abuse, family breakup, abusive partner, financial difficulties, abusive and bullying boss at work, social isolation, mental health issues, loneliness, no sense of being part of a supportive family or group – religious or otherwise.
The simple fact is that we humans are social animals. We require nurture and support by others. We need a sense of belonging, a sense of value and purpose. We need to be loved, not hit, or shouted at, or bullied, or treated with contempt.
When I first started looking at CVD, this was the area that I focussed on. It seemed obvious to me, that there was an enormously important mind/body connection that was simply being ignored by mainstream research into heart disease – and all other diseases. Despite the complete lack of interest by most researchers, whenever and wherever you look, if you chose to see, psychological/mental health issues were standing right there, waving their arms about and shouting me, me, me, me. Look at ME!
The full impact of negative stressors was highlighted in a study that was sent to me a few months back. Researchers found that people who suffer from significant money worries are thirteen times more likely to suffer a heart attack. Yes, thirteen times more likely, or 1,300%. Now that is the level of increased risk where I tend to prick up my ears and pay attention. Relative risk, or not1.
It is also clear that mental health, or mental illness, plays a massive role in overall health and life expectancy, as highlighted by researchers from Oxford University.
‘Serious mental illnesses reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years, an analysis by Oxford University psychiatrists has shown – a loss of years that’s equivalent to or worse than that for heavy smoking….
…The average reduction in life expectancy in people with bipolar disorder is between nine and 20 years, while it is 10 to 20 years for schizophrenia, between nine and 24 years for drug and alcohol abuse, and around seven to 11 years for recurrent depression.’2
Yes, when your mind goes wrong, your body follows, with disastrous consequences for overall health. Of course, there is overlap between mental illness, drug use, smoking and suchlike. However, you can strip out all the other things, and you are left with the ferocious power of the mind/body connection. The power to nurture, and the power to destroy.
I usually tell anyone, still listening after I have bored them on various other issues, that health is a combination of physical, psychological and social wellbeing. Three overlapping sets. The holy trinity of wellbeing. You must get them all right, or nothing works. As Plato noted, a few years back “the part can never be well unless the whole is well.”
Who are the shortest-lived peoples in the world? Are they the poor? Not necessarily, although poverty can be a clear driver of ill-health. The shortest-lived people in the world are people who live in the places of greatest social dislocation and disruption. Or, to put it another way, people who have had their societies stripped apart. Australian aboriginals, NZ Maoris, North American aboriginals, the Inuit.
‘Indigenous Australians have the worst life expectancy rates of any indigenous population in the world, a United Nations report says. But it’s not news to Aboriginal health expert. They say it simply confirms what Australian health services have known for years.
Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory (AMSANT) chief executive officer John Paterson said the findings of the report, which examined the indigenous populations of 90 countries, were no surprise. The UN report – State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – showed indigenous people in Australia and Nepal fared the worst, dying up to 20 years earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. In Guatemala, the life expectancy gap is 13 years and in New Zealand it is 11.’ 3
Twenty years earlier. I think that figure is worth repeating. I cannot find anything else, from anywhere, that gets close to that sort of impact on health – on a population basis.
Or, to put it another way, do not be a stranger in your own land. It kills you. The differences in life expectancy in the US or the UK mirror these findings, albeit less dramatically. There are areas, within deprived inner-cities in the UK, where people do almost as badly as Australian aboriginals.
It does not take a genius to guess where they might be. Inner city Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool. The same thing can be seen in ghetto areas in virtually all cities in the US. Where the marginalised poor live – but not for terribly long.
‘The differences between places [in the US] are sometimes stark. For example, the average person in San Jose (California District 19) lives to 84 years compared to just 73 years for someone from Kentucky District 5, in the rural south east of that state.’4
On a more positive note, living in supporting and positive environments, is exceedingly good for you. The Blue Zones are areas of the world where people live longer than anywhere else. For example: inland Sardinia, Loma Linda California, Nicoya (Costa Rica), Okinawa, Ikaria (Greece), and a couple of others. [I think I should point out here that they are also, sunny, something not mentioned in the book].
The most important factor was a sense of well-being, community, a connection with other people, a sense of purpose, and good relationships with friends and family. As a slight aside, the author of the book “The Blue Zones”, Dan Buettner, was very focused on the benefits of a high vegetable, low meat diet. He tried hard to promote the idea that diet was the primary driver of good health.
For example, in Sardinia, he wrote the following about the food that was eaten there:
‘It’s loaded with homegrown fruits and vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and fava beans that may reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer. Also on the table: dairy products such as milk from grass-fed sheep and pecorino cheese, which, like fish, contribute protein and omega-3 fatty acids.’
The Sardinians themselves, however, have a completely different view of what they eat, and they protested the misrepresentation of their diet:
‘In 2011, Sardinians called for formal recognition of their diet insisting that “the secret to a long life can be found in their traditional diet of lamb, roast piglet, milk and cheese.”’5
In fact, many years earlier, researchers studied another Italian community that defied all dietary expectations. This was in the town of Roseta in Pennsylvania. This community had moved, virtually lock stock and barrel, from Roseta in Italy, to a new Roseta in the US. It was noted that they had an extraordinarily low rate of CVD. Why? Here, once again, I quote an article from the Huffington Post:
‘What made Rosetans die less from heart disease than identical towns elsewhere? Family ties. Another observation: they had traditional and cohesive family and community relationships. It turns out that Roseto was peopled by strongly knit Italian American families who did everything right and lived right and consequently lived longer.
In short, Rosetans were nourished by people.
In all ways, this happy result was exactly the opposite expectation of well-proven health laws. The Rosetans broke the following long-life rules, and did so with a noticeable relish: and they lived to tell the tale. They smoked old-style Italian stogie cigars, malodorous and remarkably pungent little nips of a cigar guaranteed to give a nicotine fix of unbelievably strong potency. These were not filtered or adulterated in any way.
Both sexes drank wine with seeming abandon, a beverage which the 1963 era dietician would find almost prehistoric in health value. In fact, wine was consumed in preference to all-American soft drinks and even milk. Forget the cushy office job, Rosetan men worked in such toxic environs as the nearby slate quarries. Working there was notoriously dangerous, not merely hazardous, with “industrial accidents” and gruesome illnesses caused by inhaling gases, dusts and other niceties.
And forget the Mediterranean diets of olive oil, light salads and fat-free foods. No, Rosetans fried their sausages and meatballs in lard. They ate salami, hard and soft cheeses all brimming with cholesterol.’6
The Okinawan’s, another of the Blue Zone populations are also known as the pig eaters. It is said that they eat every part of the pig, apart from the squeak. In short, you can focus on the diet of very long-lived people around the world, if you want, but you will find little or nothing here. Much in the same way, you can look at the French, with the highest consumption of animal fat in Europe, and the lowest rate of CVD.
Getting back to the main point in hand. What can we really learn about the Blue Zones is that social health is terribly, terribly, important. Perhaps the single most important factor of all. If your social health goes wrong, your psychological health will suffer, followed by your physical health. More recently it has been recognised, finally, that loneliness is a significant driver of ill health and early death.7
Be happy, be friendly, be healthy. Live long and prosper, my friend.