Who Gets Degenerative Disease?


In the west – Europe and North America – more than 70% die from degenerative disease, yet there are two identifiable groups that are largely free from thesedege.deg

By degenerative disease we mean heart disease, cancer, adult onset diabetes, dementia, and several less common age related diseases.

We know for certain that degenerative disease can be avoided. These groups, and their lifestyles are proof. The two groups are hunter-gatherers and centenarians.

You may be surprised to hear that there are any hunter-gatherers still around. In fact, there are perhaps as many as 200 tribes scattered here and there, in various out of the way places throughout the world. One island group off the coast of India is a complete unknown. They are the Sentinelese, but this is our name, not theirs. Potential visitors, helicopters, and passing ships are all met with volleys of arrows.

Research into more accommodating tribes has been going on for at least a century and a common thread runs through it all: members of hunter-gatherer societies rarely get cancer, heart disease, or other degenerative disease. This contrasts sharply to our world where more then 70% of us now die from one of these. This almost total absence among the hunter-gatherers strongly suggests that degenerative disease is not inevitable.

A red flag could be raised: Don’t these people have reduced life spans? They simply don’t live long enough to get our ‘modern’ diseases. This is a valid point. They do tend to die younger due to infection, trauma, childbirth, and warfare.

But not all of them die young. There are elderly. A hunter-gatherer who has made it to age 50 can expect to live another healthy 25 years or more and will probably outlive his non hunter-gatherer neighbors. Apparently, among these older hunter-gatherers, almost no heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, or dementia is to be found. Further, unlike similarly aged westerners, their blood pressures don’t creep up with age.

A hundred years ago, there were far more hunter-gatherer tribes and much more isolation. There is a treasure of reports from various explorers and missionary doctors. From Albert Schweitzer we have, “On my arrival in Gabon [1910], I was astonished to encounter no cases of cancer. I can not, of course, say positively that there was no cancer at all, but, like other frontier doctors, I can only say that if any cases existed they must have been quite rare.” These sorts of medical surprises seem to have been the rule. Cancer, diabetes, and other diseases were nowhere to be found in the hunter-gatherer populations.

What’s underlying all of this? Hunter-gatherers, what remain of them, are still living the lifestyle that evolution ‘optimized’ us for over the last several 100,000 years. A wide variety of nutrients are consumed, all of them ‘organic’ (though possibly riddled with parasites), and none of them packaged in a box. They exercise, sometime very vigorously, especially hunting. The societies are close-knit and egalitarian, and seeming low stress. Visitors say they joke a lot. And no 80 hour work weeks, or even 40 hour ones. The provisioning of essentials takes apparently between 12 and 20 hours a week, leaving a lot of time for play, storytelling, games, and any other leisure activity. This is arguably a formula for success. Over 70% in ‘our’ society versus 0% in theirs is pretty compelling.

Don’t argue genetics here. These people are no different from us, and indeed, when they assimilate into our modern world they immediately get all our modern degenerative diseases too. (One study followed Australian Aborigines who moved to the cities, got sick, saw the light and moved back to the bush, where they subsequently got well!)

The other group is centenarians. They also are largely free from degenerative disease, but you might call foul here too. You don’t get to 100 if you have degenerate disease – so these were therefore the lucky ones. You’d be partly right. Here, having the lucky genetics would help, but just help.

Centenarians are heavily studied and although there are many individual differences, several lifestyle items do stand out. They have in common sensible diets. Not anything in particular, just real food, and not in excessive amounts. They are active. What they do for exercise is all over the place, but they aren’t couch potatoes. They don’t stress out, they take life as is comes, and enjoy it. Jeanne Calment, who made it to 122 was asked by a reporter, “Maybe we’ll meet next year?”, to which she quipped, “I don’t see why not, you seem to be in pretty good shape.”

Sensible diet, physical activity, and low stress are not genetic traits. Anybody can do these three. View genetics, especially your own, as a predisposition, and no more than that. Genetics may indeed cause us to be taller, shorter, skinnier, fatter, blonder, brunetter, or whatever, but degenerative disease is different. We are NOT destined to get these diseases because of genetics. If we were, hunter-gatherers would get them too, and they don’t. Since we have the same genetic mix, we don’t have to get these diseases either. Let degenerative disease in, and some will get heart disease, others cancer. There’s your genetics. Slam that door! Don’t let those diseases in.

  1 comment for “Who Gets Degenerative Disease?

  1. January 22, 2015 at 3:51 am

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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