Morbidity and mortality, terms used in public health to refer to sickness and death are changing, but not in the way most had expected or hoped. People are living longer, but not necessarily living better. Chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases are occurring in younger people, and the elderly are living longer with chronic diseases, a pattern called the “lengthening of morbidity”.
How did this happen, and what can you do? First of all a little background; 300 years ago most people died by age 16, mostly due to epidemics, infections and injury. Then public health initiatives such as sanitation, clean food and water dramatically decreased mortality rates. We can still see this play out in developing countries. By 1900 most Americans were dying from infections; then in 1940, Penicillin came into widespread use, dramatically increasing our life spans by controlling infections. Now our top killers are heart disease, cancer, stoke, chronic respiratory diseases. In fact, improving mortality alone is associated with being more dependent as we age. The average number of medications taken by people over 65 is a staggering 16!
So what are your options? A study of over 18,000 people, published last week in Archives of Internal Medicine suggests being or becoming fit in middle age, even if you haven’t previously exercised “compresses the time that someone is likely to spend being debilitated during old age” according to the studies author, Dr. Benjamin Willis. Being fit did not extend one’s life span. People got the same diseases but much later in their life, increasing the quality but not the quantity of their life. I personally have seen this in my practice among the occasional elderly (85 years +) clients I see. They have minor complaints, still live independently; something happens, and they go downhill rapidly.
So in addition to being fit what else can you do postpone or compress morbidity? No real secrets here; eat a fruit and vegetable based diet, get plenty of sleep, don’t smoke or eat junk food, and in general, be moderate in all that you do. For a good primer on eating well to increase the quality of your life see Healthy Eating Essentials.