A Good Time to be Born
New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”
The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.
The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.
Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.
It turns out that the obvious answers as to why this is happening -- better nutrition, better sanitation, improved health care infrastructure -- are, of course, correct, and that their impact is greatly magnified by early childhood. People are living longer today because they had a cleaner, safer, healthier, more nutritionally sound environment (by and large) than their parents did. Chances are, your mother had a healthier early childhood than her mother did, and you had a healthier early childhood than she did.
Chronic illness in early childhood predisposes an individual to complications and other illnesses throughout life, while diminishing growth rate. These later generations, which have managed to avoid or lessen the impact of childhood ilnesses, tend to be much more robust physically -- both taller and heavier than their ancestors.
We all know that increases in body weight are accompanied by a greater risk of obesity and all the complications associated with it. How interesting, then, that even though we are much fatter than previous generations -- a point that it seems to be made quite a bit -- we are much, much healthier than they were.
On a recent edition of the Glenn and Helen Show, Dr. Michael Zemel -- discussing the obesity problem -- commented that we may be pushing our luck in this regard, that with obesity rampant among younger and younger children, we may be witnessing the emergence of the first generation to be less healthy, and to have a shorter life expectancy, than their parents. While there's no question that the problem of childhood and teenage obesity needs to be addressed, Robert Fogel's research may provide some mitigation to that fear. After all, fat as they may (unfortunately) be, there's no question that the generations coming up now have had exemplary early childhoods -- probably the healthiest ever. Other than the weight problem, which we need to help them beat, these kids would appear to have a very healthy, and long, life ahead.