Your chances of living to healthy old age may be weighted for or against you even before you are born. Inherited tendencies, for example, may make you more prone to some mental or physical disorders than others. Babies born to mothers aged under 16 or over 35 are more likely to have a congenital abnormality, such as Down’s syndrome or an incorrectly developed heart. Small or premature babies are more likely than average to die within the first month of life, to be ill more often in childhood, and to have a higher incidence of visual, hearing and other defects. The quality of mothering an infant receives influences future health, too. Children deprived of proper ma-ternal care tend to be less healthy-both physically and mentally-in later life. Socioeconomic status also makes a difference: both sickness (morbidity) and death (mortality) rates are higher for those lower down the scale, which is partly a reflection of poorer housing and nutrition, and partly the result of employment in more dangerous occupations. Even the air you breathe may constitute a threat to health, again particularly during childhood. Car exhaust fumes contain pollutants such as lead and (probably more dangerous) carbon monoxide, which in a confined space or around areas of high traffic density such as motorway intersections may reach damaging levels. Bacterial pollution of food can cause poisoning if the food is inadequately cooked or handled in unhygienic conditons, and although most such cases are mild, they can be dangerous for the very old or the very young. In hospitals or in old people’s homes where large qantities of food are prepared, accidental food poisoning – for example with Salmonella bacteria – can have disastrous re-sults. The bacteria that cause Legionaire’s disease appear to spread through a contaminated water supply or air-conditioning system.
The ways we threaten our health
By far the greatest threats to health are the ones we inflict upon ourselves. Smoking is probably the greatest self-induced risk you can run. In any Western country every year thousands of deaths of people under 64 can be attributed to smoking, which has been linked to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even if smoking does not kill you, it will make you indisputably less healthy and particularly more prone to respiratory disorders.
Addiction to alcohol is as damaging as addiction to nicotine. In Britain about one person in 100 is an alcoholic, and heavy drinking has a damaging effect on almost all the body’s systems. Obesity is one of the most common and, through its effects on the body, potentially most lethal risks to health. Besides the sheer wear and tear on the body, carrying extra weight involves the risk of minor problems such as hernia and backache. On a major level, fat people are more likely to develop atherosclerosis (which involves the build-up of obstructive fatty tissue within arteries), coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and gallstones. Too much sugar in the diet increases the risk of tooth decay; too little fibre encourages constipation or diverticular disease.
How the West has won – and lost
The civilized Western lifestyle has eliminated many of the factors which previously threatened health, but by its very nature has introduced others. A supply of germ-free drinking water and the provision of safe sewage disposal have made major contributions to the improvement of community health. On the other hand, road accidents, for example, are the commo-nest cause of death and serious injury between the ages of five and 35. The affluence that has brought a car within the reach of many families and a television into most homes has meant that, for most people, life has become increasingly sedentary. Underused joints become stiff, underexercised muscles weak and flabby. Middleaged people who take no exercise and have sedentary jobs are twice as susceptible to heart attacks as are people who exercise regularly. Occupation, too, affects and often threatens health. Some occupations are obviously dangerous – oil-rig workers, for example, have an annual fatality rate ten times that of coal-miners and 50 times that of average factory workers. For the divers on oil rigs the risks are even higher, with a fatality rate of about ten per 1,000. Publicans run a high risk of alcoholism while doctors, with easy access to drugs, run a high risk of addiction and also of suicide. Jobs in industrial environments such as coal mines may result in lung disease, and noisy environments may affect hearing.
Living and lifestyle
Even sex is not without an element of danger, and in general the more sexual partners someone has, the greater the hazard. Gonorrhoea is now the most common infectious disease in Europe and, un-checked, AIDS may reach epidemic proportions. The change in contraceptive habits may well be important here. This is partly because the availability of the contraceptive pill means that women tend to have more sexual partners, and therefore a greater chance of acquiring an infection; it is also because the condom, which is a fairly effective barrier against sex-ually-transmitted infections as well as sperm, is now used less widely. Gonorrhoea can usually be treated with antibiotics; currently AIDS cannot be treated. Stress can make you uncomfortable, even unhappy, but does it also make you unhealthy? Undoubtedly it plays a part: if you suffer from asthma or angina, for example, you may find attacks occur more often when you are under stress. Many mental disorders are precipitated by some stressful or traumatic event. But whether stress actually causes disease is less certain. Nonetheless, severe or prolonged stress is linked with increased physical illness, mental and emotional problems, such as depression and various anxiety states, and even accidental injuries. In the final analysis, almost every facet of your lifestyle can act to improve or threaten your health. Now is the time to realize that your body, your mind and your health are your own responsibility. They begin with an account of nutrition – what constitutes a healthy diet and what foods should be avoided.