Why we die early

America’s healthcare system stands out in the world for juxtaposition of two conflicting facts: it is the world’s most expensive healthcare system in a country with one of the developed world’s lower life expectancies. Many people ascribe this problem to inefficiencies in the system, economic forces, failure to ration care. However, there is a much simpler reason, whose only problem is that it is very difficult to accept: the abundance of food in America is changing us for the worse. It’s killing us.

A simple thought experiment will illustrate why evolution would result in life that lives fast and dies young in times of plenty. Imagine two islands. Each island is populated with two species. The first, species A, has a three year lifespan. The first year, animals of species A grow from helpless infants to adulthood, and at the end of the first and second year, the animals each produce two offspring. In their second and third year of life, the adult animals raise their babies to adulthood. Then they die. In times of plenty, animals of species A grow large and dangerous.

Species B lives for 15 years. In the first five years of life, the animals of species B mature from infants to adults, produce two children at some point between years 5 and 10, and dedicate the next 5 years to raising them. After their children reach adulthood and before dying in year 15, the animals of species B can assist in raising their grandchildren, or whatever else interests them. In times of plenty, the animals of species B might have a second litter of cubs.

Both animals are equally intelligent, but Species B, with a slower maturation and longer life, learn more during their childhood. As adults, they are more knowledgeable than those of species A. Living beyond their required lifespan for childrearing, adults of species B can help their offspring through challenges or to prepare for future ones.

Here’s the experiment: Island 1 is rich with easily accessible food, pleasant weather, and raw materials for nests or burrows. Island 2 has some fruit bearing plants, but their production depends on good weather, which on island 2 may be variable. Forage for food and nesting materials is more difficult. Put two animals of each species on each island.

It’s not difficult to think about what might happen. On island 1, the animals of species A rapidly multiply, filling the island and crowding out species B. On island 2, the animals of species A multiply slowly, and are less susceptible to periodic famines. Over time, the animals of species B survive and those of species A fail.

The interesting thing is that humans are both species. Evolution has made us live fast, reproduce, and get out of the way when living is easy, and live slowly, reproduce opportunistically, and stick around to help the young survive when times are tough.

Research has shown that most animals live dramatically longer when subjected to what is essentially a starvation diet. More than this, many people once thought that early puberty in children was related to hormones in milk. Today we know that it is very likely obesity that triggers early puberty: it seems the more food available, the earlier our bodies prepare for reproduction. Other facts conform with this theory: for example, women experience amenorrhea from stress, low body weight, and excessive exercise. Doesn’t this seem like signals that it was not a good time to have children during the evolution of the modern human?

Could the problem with America be that we are killing ourselves with abundance? As manufacturing, technology, and even services are increasingly being delivered abroad, America is increasingly specializing in two things: feeding its population and combating the effects of this with medical technology.

Could the solution to Americas health care crisis be so simple as to stop eating so much? We ask for medicine to furnish more and better chemicals to counter the influence of the chemicals we put in our bodies. Why don’t we just cut back on these chemicals? We’ve all heard pitchmen advance the benefits of anti-oxidants, but why don’t we just stop consuming so many oxidants?

Let’s be species B, living slowly by our wits. Species A is bigger and stronger than Species B but stupider, lazier, and shorter lived. The nations that are out-competing us in the industrial, technological, and, increasingly, intellectual arena are composed of lean, mean, species B, while we Americans gorge ourselves on corn and fat.

We have two hopes: we could stop this, cutting our caloric intake and re-gaining our intellectual edge. Alternatively, we could export our easy, fat complacency.