The Wrong Normal

Life expectancy in the United States and around the world has increased over time. But this has not been primarily due to people living longer, paradoxical as that might seem. Average life expectancies are determined not only by when people die at an older age but also by the number of people dying at younger ages. And in the early twentieth century, childbirth was very risky and a lot of people died at birth or at very young ages. And that brought the average life expectancy down from what it is today.

In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as number one, but in actuality for 2015, our life expectancy ranked number 43 at an average age for all people, both men and women, at 79.68 years. If you're twenty years old, that may seem like a long ways off. If you're turning seventy, like I will be next year, that's kind of alarming.

But as I said, that's the average. And the average is affected by people who die young, and a lot do die young from drug overdoses, violence in the streets, fighting in wars, college pranks and more. So, to create that average requires people living longer too. And a lot of people do live longer. Many people live well into their eighties, nineties and one hundreds. And I think we usually expect that our family and friends will live to be later than their seventies.

And yet when somebody in their seventies dies, we don't think it all that unusual. I was thinking about that this past weekend after hearing that Justice Scalia had died. Although I was not a fan of Justice Scalia, I did have a personal affinity for him because I once sat next to him on the plane from Minneapolis to Washington, DC. So, when he died, I had a small sense of personal recognition that it was somebody who I had known, albeit ever so very briefly, and that always hits home a little bit.

Justice Scalia died right at that average age of 79.68 years (well, I'm guessing at the 0.68 part). So, we think it was normal. It's not unusual to die at the age of 79. So, we treat it as normal.

But is it? While none of us knows when we'll die, and I acknowledge that I could die before the end of today (oh no! Who will run tonight's Eat Smart Live Longer Club meeting!), the fact is, the overwhelming majority of us ought to expect to live a whole lot longer than that. I would even posit that we, as a population, should expect to live well into our hundreds. While some will always die in their seventies and eighties, we really shouldn't think of that as normal.

It's only normal because of the prevalence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other diseases that are affected by lifestyle. We can choose a lifestyle that not only keeps us alive longer but also allows us to be healthier while we are alive. After all, it's no fun to live to be a hundred, if you are in constant pain or you are on an oxygen machine or getting dialysis or getting heart surgery every few years. The goal needs to be not just living to an age are bodies are designed to live to but also staying healthy during that entire time.

There are many factors that go into a good lifestyle. Not smoking is a key one. Exercise is very important, both aerobic and strength building. Creating a less stressful life, perhaps through yoga and meditation or prayer, is helpful as well. And key to all of it, I think, is eating a whole foods, plant-based diet.

I think the preponderance of scientific evidence points to that fact. And fortunately, we have a group here in the United States that lends itself to just that kind of study. The Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California consist of a population where there are a large number of people who are vegan. But not all Adventists are. Some are different types of vegetarians as well. And the Seventh Day Adventists can be compared to Mormons in Salt Lake City who follow similar lifestyles of exercise and stress reduction but don't follow vegan or vegetarian ways of eating.

That all allows for comparisons. By studying Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, we are able to see that food is, from my understanding of the evidence, the major factor in disease prevention and prevention of early death (I call death in our seventies or eighties as being early death). By studying vegan Adventists against vegetarian Adventists, we are also able to see that there are definite health benefits to eliminating animal products from our diets.

Scientists will say these are epidemiological studies. They're not the gold standard of scientific study, which would be the randomized, double blind, controlled study. However, this is a canard because such studies are virtually impossible to do when it comes to subjects like food.  There are too many other factors that come into play that can't be controlled for. Plus how do you keep people from knowing what they're eating? Or from cheating and then lying to researchers? That's why epidemiological studies like the Adventists or the China Study are important.

It's also a canard because people who will discard the China Study or the Adventists study will readily accept the Harvard Nurses Study, which I believe has the same issues associated with it.

Anyway, I think we should not accept dying in our seventies as being normal. We should think of it as being an early death. That's my opinion anyway. But I also accept the Buddhist principle that says we should live as if today were our last day. Or as Jesus is known to have said that we don't know the hour at which we will die. And of course, that too must keep us humble.