“With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Hunter S. Thompson
Not for the first time in human history but for the first time in the modern era, people are going to die, on average, earlier than their parents. For all the advancements in modern medicine, we are losing ground and are going to continue to lose ground for a confluence of factors. The aptly dubbed “Greatest Generation” will represent the high-water mark of average longevity, both in total years lived and in total usable, functional years. As I write this, there are only two living people on the entire planet who were born before 1900. Ponder that for a second. Two. Two people that have lived through having two US presidents assassinated. Two people that were old enough to actually remember WWI and have been involved. Why do they represent the upper end of the group that I think will be the high-water mark? Let’s look to the past.
Contrary to what most people might think, the evolution of the human hasn’t always been a straight line process. Like anything else, our evolution has moved along in fits and starts, with certain periods seeing huge jumps in capacity and others seeing losses. One of those loss periods started about the time man started making the switch from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist. Depending on where in the world you are speaking about, this mostly happened from about 10,000 years ago to 6,000 years ago. Agriculture gave rise to civilizations and cities which gave rise to communicable diseases but it also affected movement and dietary patterns. We know from archeological findings that the Agriculturalists had much worse dental health, shorter stature, and probably shorter lifespans than the hunter-gatherers that came before them. Yet, the switch to agriculture represented a giant leap forward for the advancement of the species. The development of cities and civilizations would give rise to the world as we know it today, but it did come at the price of individual health and longevity.
That is the same trade-off that has been made in the last century. In the intervening 6,000 or so years, most of humanity managed to evolve reasonably well to the switch in food sources and movement patterns. We have developed resistance to disease and developed different genetic mutations that have allowed humans in varying degrees to handle new food sources. In roughly the past century and a half, we have seen the meteoric rise of modern medicine from the barber/doctor of lore to the modern medical professional. More impactful, the change we have seen in the food supply and the environment in the last 10 decades and the unmeasured impacts that have had on our epigenetics. The epigenetics is the key. That is the delayed timer or the ticking time bomb, depending on your view. What exactly is epigenetics you ask? According to everyone’s favorite go to for quick info, Wikipedia, epigenetics (are you ready for this?)
is the study, in the field of genetics, of cellular and physiologicalphenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Hence, epigenetic research seeks to describe dynamic alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell. These alterations may or may not be heritable, although the use of the term “epigenetic” to describe processes that are not heritable is controversial. Unlike genetics based on changes to the DNA sequence (the genotype), the changes in gene expression or cellularphenotype of epigenetics have other causes, thus use of the prefix epi-(Greek: επί– over, outside of, around)
So I am sure you followed that word for word right? Basically, what we referring to is changes in gene expression versus changes in the actual DNA. Think of it this way, DNA is the Hardware, Epigenetics is the Software that dictates what Hardware is used. For our purposes, we are going to refer to Epigenetics as roughly the impacts that environmental and chemical stimuli have on development in the years before we are born and even before our parents are born, in theory going back at least to the time before your grandmother was born. This is due to biology. According to accepted science, a woman is born with all of the eggs she will have in her lifetime, she and her eggs both bear the imprint of her mother and any exposures she had. This is why chemical or drug exposures or even periods of food scarcity that women and to a much lesser extent, men had years before can impact gene expression in children or grandchildren. This isn’t something worth worrying about as a health risk because there is absolutely nothing to be done about it in hindsight. What will be will be. However, how this plays into the high-water mark theory is this.
The generation that lived through WWI, the so-called “Lost Generation” and the “Greatest Generation” if we are going to bother dividing the two, both were lucky enough to have been the last two generations in the history of the planet to have a virtually clean epigenetic lineage in terms of man-made chemical/drug exposures. The chemical and the drug industries basically did not exist before their lifetime so they have practically no genetic switching resulting from man-made substances.
So this generation has virtually clean epigenetics AND they benefited from the rise of modern medicine to treat illnesses, vaccines to prevent illnesses and surgical interventions to correct both injuries and illnesses. This group also did not encounter DDT until their 20’s, processed food until their 30’s at the very earliest and Glyphosate until their 50’s. They also saw the conversion of the US food system from natural and local to industrialized and chemical driven. All the while taking advantage of the progression of modern medicine from practically the dark ages to the Industrial/Pharmacological Complex that it is today. As an aside, from a personal standpoint, my 91-year-old grandfather vividly remembers being taught in school that one piece of bread a day was all anyone needed. So more has changed than one would notice from the surface.
As a complete contrast, the children of the “Greatest Generation”, the “Baby Boomers” showed up just in time to get hit with a full frontal assault. Their parents were exposed to chemicals. Their mothers’ given all sorts of drugs both prior to and during pregnancy. Thalidomide, being one of the latter and also one of the most infamous. However, there are many others that just now, 50 plus years later researchers are beginning to link to many downstream effects, with some serious research being devoted to women who were given one particular group of drugs whose grandchildren have a much higher than average rate of Autism.¹ This was the dawn of the “better things for better living through chemistry” movement that DuPont helped usher in. This was also the first generation in history to have a substantial portion of their meals prepared outside the home, the first that felt the industrialization of the food supply and the first to live their whole lives with chemistry experiments replacing natural products on the dinner table. Crisco and margarine replacing lard and butter are two examples that come to mind.
Years later we are beginning to see the ramifications, but all of this is simply an aside to the larger statement. The statement that all of these effects in combination are going to contribute, for the first time in modern history, to the average usable life span and possibly the average total life span being reduced. Apart from the potential social and political ramifications, what does that tell us about the average lifestyle? We have a medical system that has virtually rid the developed world of whole classes of diseases yet is losing the war in America’s kitchens and living rooms. We have modern science that has developed ways to replace whole body organs with machines yet we are still fighting a life and death battle with chemicals’ that science designed 60 years ago.
How do we combat it? Let’s look at what we as individuals can control directly and what we can’t. Epigenetics, for the most part, no control for yourself at all, period. You can limit and/or mitigate the effects for your future generations but for yourself, well, you are stuck. However, there is some emerging science that is beginning to point towards lifestyle choices being able to, in effect, actively switch some DNA expression. Although it is based on some very controversial and not extremely clear studies it does offer some gleam of hope. Regardless of the effects on epigenetics, changing diet and movement patterns back towards a pre-industrial model seems to be one of the single biggest things you can do TODAY to increase the likelihood of a longer lifespan. This includes many things we have talked about here on Country Boy Paleo things like:
- Rejecting the USDA food guidelines which were designed to feed a population cheaply not to increase individual population health
- Eating whole animal and plant products and rejecting industrially grown or processed food
- Spending a majority of the day moving or at the least not sitting
- 100% all out efforts multiple times a week, be those through sprinting, weightlifting, climbing or furious wood splitting sessions
- Limiting or abandoning completely the use of industrial chemicals both in and out of the home. Things like solvents, petro based chemicals and herbicides
- Limiting use of medications and supplements to only the Minimum Effective Dosages (MED). Please contact a competent medical professional.
- Spending more time outdoors
- Playing every day.
That is just a starter list of the things you can control individually. This is where it gets tricky and where different groups take different stances. Regardless of what you do and where you live, as a citizen of the modern world. you are going to be exposed to various chemicals and drug residues on a daily basis. They exist both in the air and in trace amounts in our water, our food and even the things we touch. (Here is a short list of 187 airborne chemicals that the EPA KNOWS to be toxic).
The question on everyone’s mind is how much of the reverse in lifespan, essentially all cause mortality is due to chemical exposure, direct and indirect and how much is due to lifestyle factors including chemical exposure through new processes of creating “food.” The short answer, humanity will never know. End of story. There are far too many confounding variables to study every variable in a human life and we no longer have a control group to study against, a clean group if you will. What we do know is this, because of research done years ago by people like Weston Price and John Yudkin, that humans who were studied using modern scientific tools yet existed outside of the modern world had much better life outcomes than we have today. So maybe we can’t mitigate all the effects of industrial society at least with a return to pre-industrial lifestyle patterns we can combat the compounding effects of the modern first world.
Think of it like this. If you get in a car and drive somewhere you have a risk of being in a car wreck. To simplify, let’s say that risk is roughly the same regardless of outside factors no matter what you do. So now we know that, let’s say your risk of being in a car wreck is 3% no matter what you do. However, if you choose to wear a seatbelt your risk of dying in a car wreck goes way down, even though you still have the same risk of being in a wreck. This is essentially the same. We all have the same risk factors for early mortality but if you decide to wear your seat belt, i.e. return to a pre-industrial lifestyle you improve your own chances.
Until next time,
Keep it real and keep it rural
¹ Escher, J. (n.d.). A Grandmotherly Clue in One Family’s Autism Mystery. Retrieved February 23, 2016, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2013/08/27/grandmotherly-clue-one-family’s-autism-mystery