Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, took his young cousin Margaret on a trip to South America in 1914. She died of typhoid fever.
His sister-in-law died of diphtheria at home at the age of 28. His youngest son, Quentin, died on the battlefield in the First World War.
Canadians no longer die of typhoid, nor of diphtheria. Canada is at peace. Life expectancy has risen by 30 years since 1914.
Two studies published in 2012 examined the impact of personal behaviour on disability and life expectancy. Their findings lend support to the belief that a portion of our destiny is now within our own control.
The Global Burden of Disease Study is the collaboration of 486 scientists in 50 countries.
The study took more than five years to complete. The results show men and women throughout the world are living longer, but are also spending more years living with injury, illness and disability.
Globally, high blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor, accounting for more than 20 per cent of all death and disability in adults over age 70.
The top seven risk factors in North America include smoking, obesity, alcohol use, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low physical activity and a poor diet — a diet low in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds but high in sodium, cholesterol and calories.
Ontario’s Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) calculated the risk of death from smoking, alcohol, poor diet, physical inactivity and stress.
The combined impact of the five risks accounted for 60 per cent of all deaths in Ontario in 2007.
Smoking is by far the most hazardous behaviour for health. Heavy smokers have a life expectancy 12 years lower than non-smokers. People with exposure to all five risks have a life expectancy 20 years lower than people with none of the five risks.
Conversely, folks who practice healthy life styles can now expect to live to an age of 90. Pretty amazing, but that is not all.
Let me conclude with stories.
“B” is overweight. She has diabetes, high blood pressure and obstructive sleep apnea. She has knee pain. She takes many pills and uses a machine to help her breathe while she sleeps.
She has not changed her diet, lost any weight, nor increased her level of activity. She gets her blood pressure and blood sugar checked every three months. Last year, she had a heart attack. She is thinking about a knee replacement.
“R” had a similar initial medical history. But she checks her own blood sugar and blood pressure daily and visits her family physician when the results are abnormal.
She decided to change her diet and to increase her level of activity. She lost an impressive amount of weight.
To her delight, her diabetes and blood pressure no longer needed treatment. Her sleep apnea was resolved and she could put away the breathing machine. Her knees gave her less trouble. Overall, the quality of her life improved dramatically.
The date is January 2013. It is a good time for making resolutions.
Dr. Peter Zalan is president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective.