Like politics, there’s nothing like health to spark controversy and heated debate. The topic ‘Is this generation of children going to die younger than us due to their poor health?’ is no different. To spark even further debate, I would argue that in some ways this is an irrelevant question as it is not how long we live but how well we live.

I see numerous patients who are surviving life, rather than thriving. GPs are advised to assess patients for Quality Of Life (QOL) and the ability to complete Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) when referring patients for hip replacements, for example, but are inadequately trained or encouraged to check markers of thriving in everyday life. Integrative Medicine and many allied health training courses teach assessment of these parameters in much more depth, with these assessments just the starting point for helping patients to thrive.

However, let’s start by looking at some of the reasons why our children are likely to die younger than us, as they are the same reasons why many of us are not thriving.

Obesity

Obesity rates have more than doubled in 28 years. According to a Lancet article this year, 2.1 billion people worldwide are not just overweight but are obese, compared with 875 million people in 1980. And the obesity epidemic is affecting not just the US: New Zealanders have the third-highest rate of obesity in the OECD. Around 30 per cent of adults in New Zealand are obese, compared with around 11 per cent in 1980.

The cause of obesity is not a simple ‘calories in, calories out’ issue, with the real issues being multi-factorial. A major factor is the consumption of processed ‘food-like substances’, leading to many of us becoming over-fed but undernourished. The intricacies and issues of ‘food-like substances’ are a topic for another opinion piece, but some other less-well-known nutrition-related issues include:

  • Recurrent dieting. Just one calorie-restriction-based diet suppresses satiety hormones for up to six years.
  • Eating nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods means those who eat them (regardless of their weight) are literally starving. This creates the desire to eat more to try to obtain much-needed nutrients.
  • Excessive sugar consumption. Pre-1960s, sugar consumption was 5kg/person/year, now it is 55kg/person/year.
  • Our relationships with food. Too many people are eating too fast, too late in the day, and/or using food as comfort.
  • Closely related to the above is food addiction. This is addiction not just to the obvious things like sugar, but also to gluten and dairy products, which release morphine-like molecules in the gut.
  • Reduced consumption of plant foods, lean protein and good fats.
  • Consumption of foods to which we are intolerant. Lack of food variety, among other issues, can create food intolerances.
  • Sub-optimal gut microbiome from issues such as the overuse of antibiotics and xenobiotics (prescribed, or in our food and water).

Inflammation

There are many causes of inflammation, with many similar to the causes of obesity. However, some additional causes include:

  • Exposure to environmental chemicals (including heavy metals such as mercury), food additives, medications and recreational drugs such as alcohol.
  • Stress and its many causes (discussed in previous opinion pieces). At its extreme, stress can lead to suicide, but the more common depression and anxiety are also causing many to survive rather than thrive. With rates of suicide significantly increasing, this is a key area to address in order to extend the survival of our younger generations. However, the key is not to treat suicidal, depressed, or anxious patients as psychoactive drug-deficient; the only way to create full and lasting benefits is to keep looking for root causes.
  • Hidden infections, including parasites and mould, are poorly recognised and therefore usually not treated by conventional medicine.

Activity

Reduced activity, and its extreme of no activity, is a well-known cause of increased morbidity and mortality. Activity rates are dropping for a number of reasons, but increased screen time is an obvious one. The joint pains and fatigue that usually come from obesity are obviously part of the vicious cycle of inactivity, obesity and poor health.

Another consideration is that the current generation of children may survive longer than us as, thanks to continuing medical advances, we have become fantastic at keeping people alive. However, even if this is the case, there are clear signs that this generation of children will be in a worse state of health.

To change surviving to thriving requires extensive input from us and our patients, and the earlier the better. Think beyond the narrow ‘calories-in, calories-out’ approach; it simply doesn’t work in most cases. Life is more than survival, so ask yourself: “What will I do today to help my patients and myself thrive?”

Dr Tracy Chandler BSc (Hons) MBChB FRNZCGP FNZSCM, PGDipSEM, Cert Dermoscopy, Cert Homeopathy, MACNEM member, gained her degree in England and worked as a GP in Timaru before doing postgraduate training in sports, skin and integrative medicine.

She specialised in integrative (wellness) medicine in line with her increasing interest in the impact of nutrition and environment on health and wellbeing.

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