Getting US Healthy

For a couple decades I've read widely, on a hobby basis, in the healthy-lifestyle-science area.  My interest began when I was trying to boost my intellectual performance while in graduate school.  Later, when I started a family at age 50, my interest shifted to staying healthy and being around to watch, help, and enjoy my kids as they grew into adults.

Last night I had the honor of introducing one of my favorite healthy-lifestyle-science heroes, Michael Greger, MD.  Greger's talk was sponsored by the Rochester Area Vegetarian Society, a good place to learn how to become vegan and improve your health.  He delivered his lecture, "The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, & Reversing the 15 Leading Causes of Death", to an overflowing audience of 124 at The Summit at Brighton, "a provider of independent senior living" here in Rochester.  Many in the audience attended despite being drenched due to a thunder storm that struck just before the talk began.  You can watch the same lecture on YouTube here.

I'm prompted to mention all this after reading Dorothy Paige's blog on our single-payer health-care option. 

My personal view is that we should transition to a single-payer system for several reasons.  First, it has the potential to be much cheaper.  For example, simply eliminating our burdensome and intrusive  insurance industry will save us about one-third of our current total health-care expenditure.  That alone can reduce our health-care system's expense down to only 25% more expensive than Canada's, instead of roughly twice as expensive, as currently. 

A  single-payer system also has the potential to be far more just, important if we are to reverse the tyranny of the rampant class warfare we suffer.  Single-payer can be more equal by efficiently allowing everybody access to a basic level of quality healthcare, like Canada, England, and many other first-world countries have long had.  This does not, of course, preclude anybody from paying for expanded care, including boutique health-care options for those who can afford it. 

One of our big problems, with respect to health care costs, is that overall we're a pretty sick society.  For example, Canadians have superior health outcomes, as compared to the U.S., and universal health-care coverage, all for roughly half of what we pay.  Canada is single payer.

Why are we so unhealthy?  Through a large and growing body of high-quality science, we now know we, as a society, make unhealthy lifestyle choices -- especially diet.  Simply stated, we eat too much animal and not enough plant.  Michael Pollen sums this up in the opening three sentences of his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto: "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."  By "Eat food" he means real food, as opposed to the highly processed, loaded with non-food chemicals, nutrition-removed stuff made by our "food" companies; "real" foods are bits of plants and animals as nature made them, the kinds of foodstuffs we've evolved to eat. 

This conclusion is not new.  The earliest to notice this that I know of, was Nathan Pritikin back in the 1950'.  He adopted what eventually became known as the Pritikin Diet, a low-fat vegan diet.  He popularized his healthy lifestyle and diet with the publication of "The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise" in the 1970's; the book sold millions of copies and stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for a year.

Since the 1970's the sciences of lifestyle health has progressed.  As shown during Greger's talk, it's now clear that the majority of what we die from here in the U.S. is self-inflicted by choosing an unhealthy lifestyle.  T. Colin Campbell, first author of the book The China Study, also came to a similar conclusion based upon a very conservative analysis of our death statistic (overly conservative in my view) -- poor diet is the leading cause of death in the U.S.  Why this is so will be the topic of a future post.

There's also the so-called Blue Zone research looking at the places where people live the longest and healthiest -- places like Okinawa, Japan; the  highland area of the island of Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.  All these peoples have a lot of lifestyle factors in common besides just living longer and living healthier.  They all follow Michael Pollen's dietary dictums.  For more info, see Dan Buettner's TED talk "How to live to be 100+".

We're learning one of the ways a good diet can improve health is the new science of epigenetics.  When I took genetics back around 1970, we were taught that inheritance operates exclusively through DNA encodings of genes.   In fact, my textbook's authors went out of their way to denounce a competing theory of inheritance popularized by the French researcher Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or Lamarckian inheritance.  Lamarck's idea was that individual organism's adaptations to their environment can be passed down to succeeding generations.  We now know Lamarck was right, there's a second mechanism of inheritance, what we now call epigenetics.

Lifestyle can change the epigenetic expression of genes in humans.  Diet, healthy or unhealthy, can change the expression of our genes.  Turns out this is an important part of how diet affects our health.  In short, we're beginning to understand some of the mechanisms of how a healthy diet improves our health.  For more on this, watch Dean Ornish's TED talk Your Genes Are Not Your Fate.

What this new scientific understand means is that we now have a great opportunity to significantly improve our health, extend our lifespan, extend our healthspan, and substantially lower our medical costs, simply by improving our lifestyle -- put bluntly, by refraining from continuing to commit mass suicide through an unhealthy lifestyle.  We can each do this individually by simply adopting a healthy lifestyle.  We can also do this as a society by adopting rational public policy based upon what science says will improve our health, as opposed to the more common class-warfare-based public policy that is so widespread today. 

Coupled with a single-payer health-care system, adopting a healthy lifestyle can simultaneously improve our health and lower our health-care costs for all of us.

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