There’s no doubt about it, modern medicine can accomplish astounding feats. Heart transplants. Brain surgery. Decoding the human genome. We are fortunate to live in a society where the average life expectancy is nearly eighty years.
Of course, Americans suffer from our fair share of diseases. Who doesn’t have a family member battling cancer, a grandparent who suffered from Alzheimer’s, or a father/grandfather/uncle with heart disease? It’s easy to think that the high rate of these devastating illnesses is due to the fact that people are simply living longer and therefore more likely to encounter certain chronic health conditions. But even the most cursory glance at the evidence reveals that this is not the case.
Less than a hundred years ago, the notion that certain health conditions were “diseases of civilization” was readily apparent. Missionaries, colonists, and other world travelers all made the same observation: certain diseases that plagued our modern civilization were noticeably absent among non-industrialized societies. International health workers reported similar results virtually everywhere they encountered previously isolated peoples, from the Inuit of the Arctic to the Aborigines of the Australian outback. Since these doctors were from the West, they were already proficient at diagnosing such illnesses, they just weren’t seeing them in the indigenous population.
Even more compelling, physicians were able to document the rise of modern diseases as native societies gradually adopted the lifestyle of the industrialized world. As a doctor in West Africa, Albert Shweitzer was astonished that he did not encounter a single case of cancer upon his arrival in Gabon. Sadly, he saw a steady increase in cancer rates over the next few decades as the locals assimilated to the culture of their European colonists.
In addition to cancer, some of the other diseases that were almost universally absent from non-industrialized societies include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, cavities, periodontal disease, appendicitis, peptic ulcers, gallstones, hemorrhoids, constipation, and varicose veins. Unfortunately, not a single medical missionary seems to have documented the rate of cellulite in non-industrialized societies, so that aspect of our investigation remains a mystery (for now).
Believe it or not, physicians of the era relied on one surprisingly reliable indicator that the “diseases of civilization” would soon be prevalent in a society –and it’s an indicator with which you just might be painfully familiar.
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