23 Jan You Will Not Live to Be 100!

Are you okay with that?

It’s likely that, when you were a child, the prospect of living for 100 years was offered to you as an ideal — the golden payoff of progress. I recall hearing a lot about that when I was a youngster and thinking advanced old age would be a great thing: more time to read comics and watch TV! As an adult, I began to see the philosophical complications of this prospect, such as, What do you do with yourself when you’ve been retired for, say, 30 years? What will anybody LET you do? Now a more worrisome prospect has arisen: it is very likely that our life expectancy is dropping, not rising.

Recently, my brother Mike helped a family friend celebrate his 100th birthday. “How did this guy live to be 100?” I asked. Mike, a nutritionist, said: “Think about it: his generation grew up eating nothing but organic food. Plus, his generation grew up in minimal polution and without hyper-antibacterial cleanliness, which meant that he had the chance to build up immunities to all kinds of ailments and disease.” Also, this guy took care of himself, in part by following Mike’s advice.

Mike’s argument, shared by many “natural-health” nutritionists, is this: Since the rise of corporate farming after World War II and the massive use of pesticides, not to mention the proliferation of pollution, we have impaired our health, not improved it. Sure, statistically the Baby Boomers come out ahead of their parents on the acturarial charts but that may be because many of us Boomers have combatted the ill-effects of our tainted world through exercise, vitamin supplements, and improved food choices. And, of course, we now have better life-support systems than ever.

The scary thing is, I’m coming to believe that Mike is right. The college students I teach seem to be an unhealthy lot. Don’t get me wrong. They are sweet and look wholesome enough, but deep down, I fear, they are time bombs of ill health. Unless it’s organic (and even then there’s no guarantee), the produce we buy at the supermarket is saturated with pesticides. Virtually all packaged (processed) food is doused in preservatives. Our milk and cheese are laden with hormones that cause cancer. Our drinking water is infused with heavy metals and toxins — to the extent that every man, woman, and child in the U.S. tests positive for worrisome traces of presciption medications and even jet fuel, among other scary things. I know, I know, nobody wants to hear this. But all of this bad stuff comes home finally in our abilities to fight off and survive illness. You have only to consider the epidemic of breast cancer and autoimmune disorders, not to mention ADHD and autism, to understand that something has gone awry.

A friend of mine jokes that there’s no reason why her 87-year-old father should stil be alive. The man hasn’t exercised in 50 years. He’s had two heart bypass surgeries. He’s wearing a pacemaker and takes 20 prescription pills a day. He eats a diet of lunch meat and microwave hamburgers. But he keeps going. Why? Mike has the answer: the old guy got a great start as a child — organic foods, no pesticides, and so on. Okay, and maybe he’s got good genes.

So here’s my dreadful point: today’s children may not live to be as old as their parents. I’m sorry to point this out! It’s hard to accept because we’ve lived for a couple of centuries under the spell of Progress, driven by Science and clear improvements in the health and welfare of the common man and woman. Unfortunately, it seems medical science is now in the business of keeping us alive no matter how poor our health is. That’s why doctors insisted on doing a second heart operation on my friend’s father when he was 85. And that’s why so many brain-dead patients are farmed out on life support indefinitely — at a cost of millions upon millions of dollars. New and better hardware is not the path to good health!

Clean food and water are the path to good health. But here’s the catch: people get very touchy when you or I suggest that they might “eat better.” Food is an emotional topic, tied to personal and familial identity, life choices, even to politics. Also, just as troublesome, Americans think food should be really cheap. As a result, they balk at the prospect of paying more for what may be better, healthier food. An organic apple will cost twice as much as a non-organic apple. But a non-organic apple has some of the highest levels of pesticides of any produce. An apple a day?

The argument against pesticide- and preservative-free foods is that the so-called “dirty” foods carry only “trace” amounts of toxins and, so far, studies have suggested that trace amounts won’t hurt you. I myself am not so confident of these studies, especially when it’s clear that these studies aren’t numerous or prolonged and nobody in the food industry is eager to see, much less support, them.

When I started cooking for myself, in college, I started eating better. By the time I was twenty, I was eating what we called “health foods.” I’m not planning on living to be 100, a prospect I mostly dread. But I want to be healthy till the end, whenever that may be. I have seen my brother Mike do some amazing things with nutrition, even to the point of saving a child’s life. So I’m listening to him and spending more on food and, yes, vitamins too in the hope that the relatively small price I pay now will prevent my having to pay a much larger price later.