Are Rates of Disease Rising? Heart Disease

This will be a series of posts–all on different diseases!

Introduction

One of the paradoxes that I perceive in nutrition is a seemingly rising rate of disease along with a rise in nutritional awareness. I believe rates of many diseases are going up, but more importantly, I believe most of the diseases we face today hardly existed at the turn of the 20th century. My purpose with this blog is, in part, to look at what science says, but more importantly, to take a logical and rational approach when dealing with nutrition topics. I have radically alternate views when it comes to nutrition, and though I can back them up with a lot of science (science that is rather unknown), I believe that science can be made to say anything, and that what is really needed is good, sound reason.

About Statistics

Talking about rising rates of disease from a scientific perspective is a frustrating topic. There is a large amount of data and statistics to shovel through, and an even larger amount of confounding factors. For instance, there often exists conflicting sets of statistics; on top of that, statistics can be interpreted incorrectly or could be themselves incorrect, if they were not gathered correctly. Statistics also do not reflect the effect of outside variables. Not to mention the fact that statistics are often absent for some parts of history.

In the nutritional world, things become even more confounded. An apparent rise in, let’s say, heart disease–statistically or perceptionally–could be due to an actual rise in heart disease, or it could be due to simply a rise of diagnoses of heart disease. This latter part, in turn, could be due to advances in technology that allow easier detection of the disease, to more people visiting their doctor to be tested, to disease mongering, to media coverage, changes in classification/definition of the disease, etc.

My view though is that diseases, as a whole, are increasing in number. So let’s take a look at major diseases one-by-one.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a very vague term; heart attacks are much more concrete. And since heart attacks are the product and main concern of heart disease, I will focus on data for them. However, the statistics for something as concrete and detectable as a heart attack are all over the place. This source, this source, this source, this source, and this source, all have different numbers for the number of heart attacks that occur each year in the US (the second and fourth sources coincide). What’s more, the first source appears to disagree with itself. Examine the two following quotes taken from that page: “Each year, as many as 770,000 people in the U.S. will have a coronary attack (includes heart attack and fatal coronary disease).” “Each year, approximately 555,000 men and 365,000 women suffer heart attacks.” “As many as” 770,000 people in the first quote, and a total of 920,000 in the second (both US data). Hmmmm.

Let’s move away from statistics and into reality. Heart disease is just that, a disease. And the idea of disease implies its opposite: healthiness. This blog rests on the assumption that disease is not a natural state for humans, which most people would agree with (I assume). So if healthiness is a natural state, then the current large amount of heart disease and heart attacks insinuates a time when there wasn’t heart disease (or have we always been disease-ridden?).

Indeed, there was such a time. In the first half of the 20th century, heart disease and heart attacks were rare, and around the 1920’s, they were virtually unheard of, according to Dr. Paul Dudley White, MD, a doctor that did some doctoring back then (one of among many sources). This same doctor is also the guy who brought the electrocardiogram, a device to detect arterial blockages and thus diagnose heart disease early, to the United States. Heart disease was so rare at the time that his colleagues at Harvard advised him to look into a more profitable branch of medicine (source).

The argument that immediately pops up to rebut this is that people did not live long enough to get heart disease back then. Along with implying that heart disease and old-age go hand-in-hand, there is another problem with that argument. Let’s move back into statistics. According to the American Heart Association here, 14.2% of men and 9.7% of women age 20-39 (dated 2005-2008) have cardiovascular disease. And according to the government here, the life expectancy at birth in 1900 was around 50 years of age (and if you exclude data for infant mortality, life expectancy for that period is significantly increased). As can be seen, people of Dr. White’s day lived more than long enough by today’s standards to develop heart disease. And yet they didn’t.

That last AHA source, as well as this one, show that in the last decade or so deaths from heart disease have declined; but they also show a steady increase in the number of hospital discharges for heart disease. So as awareness for heart health rises, more people than before are checking into the hospital. But if this be the case, if in the past people were not checking into the hospital when they had chest pains, where did those statistics for heart disease come from? This is more likely: advances in health care technology allow for people to live longer with heart disease while the rate of the disease continues to rise.

I will state though that it is very possible that rates of heart disease are slowly dropping, and let’s hope this is the case! We are, either way, a long ways away from the heart-disease-free era of yesteryear, and other diseases or conditions are, for certain, on the rise, especially obesity, diabetes, and depression, all of which I will cover in later posts.

To be continued….

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Photo courtesy of Fred Siebert
Advertisements

Health Uncanned, Unboxed, Unbagged

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.

Genesis 3:19

My maternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother were married for over fifty years. My mom tells me that he adored her; she, however, was more of an independent woman. However after fifty years I suppose she must have had a thing for him too.

Near the end of those fifty years my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his life slowly started to deteriorate and melt away. He became frustrated as he had trouble remembering things and knowing that tomorrow he would not remember yesterday. He eventually had to be institutionalized. Near the very end of his life, his wife of more than half a century came to visit him and asked him if he remembered her, his wife. His reply?

“I don’t have a wife.”

This pained her greatly, as can be imagined.

Stories such as this are sadly so common today. Passing away while sleeping is less and less an option, but dying while suffering from cancer, heart/cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, COPD, autoimmune diseases, et cetera, seems to be an ever-growing option. Even children are being diagnosed with some of these diseases, diseases which a century ago were virtually unheard of. But as personal health seems to diminish, public awareness of nutrition seems to increase, ironically. Could it be true that the health epidemic is due to the public’s ignorance? Health and nutrition are always hot topics, and half the products in the grocery store have health-conscious labels. What’s more, the political agenda for public health continues to improve nutrition information, such as MyPlate, and to make it easier-to-read.

So why in spite of all this, does disease persist? Why does cancer–or even a simple chronic runny nose–continue to squash our hopes for a healthy life?

My hope with this blog is to use simple logic and good science to investigate the perceived paradoxes to change how you look at nutrition. Nutrition information is extremely prevalent today, so much so it can be overwhelming. Calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, protein, fiber, fiber-to-protein ratio, glycemic index, gluten, vitamins, minerals, sodium–these are all data the health-conscious person might pay attention to–but data that, until recent science, were not available.

A version of the Food Pyramid, designed to show us the many food groups and how much of each we should eat from

Were humans destined to live in the dark shadow of disease their entire lives until they had these data? Of course not! There still exist isolated groups of peoples who live without any nutritional information such as we have, who are very, very healthy. Studying these peoples was the work of Dr. Weston A. Price. You can read about it here.

I believe, along with many others, that a healthy life should be much simpler than keeping track of a bunch of numbers, and that our food should be much more natural than what it currently is. Our food today comes in boxes, in bags, in cans–not just the Honey Buns and Hershey’s, but also healthier choices like Cheerios and chicken noodle soup. As more and more people strive to become healthy, we see more and more healthy foods on the shelves of our local supermarket–with phrases like “heart healthy” printed on the packaging. But the more they print advice on packages, the more we seem to become diseased. Why is it so difficult?

One, among many, of my goals with this blog is to look at simpler, and more traditional foods, such as butter, stock, lard (yikes!), red meat, raw milk, fermented vegetables and grains, and eggs–foods our great-grandparents ate before disease came a-knocking. Most of these foods have acquired a connotation of unhealthiness over the years, though their consumption is at an all-time low while rates of obesity and diabetes are at an all-time high.

Perhaps disease is a matter of ignorance and lack of willpower. Or perhaps disease is a matter of health no longer coming from the freedom of a field, but from the confines of a can. And a box. And a bag.

First photo by Nutrition Education. Second photo from government publication.