The Cuban Paradox

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2007

According to the Associated Press (April 22, 2007), life expectancy in Cuba is nearly the same as that in the United States and well above the world average of about 63 years.

It's probably not the quality of medical care that gives Cubans a life expectancy that's nearly as long as ours. A comment by a 70-year old Cuban man gives us a clue: "Sometimes you have all you want to eat and sometimes you don't." That is similar to a statement made by a very old but healthy farmer on the island of Crete to a visiting research scientist in the early 60s: "We are hungry most of the time." Back then Cretans were the longest-lived population group in the world.

Cubans and Cretans share what appears to be a deprivation but it could be one of the keys to longevity — undernutrition. In studies that began at about the time that Fidel was prowling through the palmettos of Cuba, scientists began to recognize that animals fed calorie-restricted diets lived as much as 50 percent longer than those fed a normal diet. Recent studies on primates appear to support the theory. A few humans are testing the concept but all we know so far is that reducing one's calorie intake while providing adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals leads to low sex drive and feeling cold all the time.

Getting lots of exercise is unavoidable in Cuba. Most families don't own a car and erratic electricity supplies make acquiring labor-saving devices pointless. Walking a lot and using hand tools for every chore keeps their hearts beating longer and makes their bones stronger.

The relaxed Caribbean lifestyle prevails among Cubans, who live practically rent-free and who receive subsidized utilities and transportation. They enjoy spending lots of time with family, friends and community groups. How like Stone-Agers, who also lived rent-free, didn't pay for utilities and nestled in protective family groups between sunset and sunrise.

Cubans admit that they have few luxuries but they don't have much stress, either. There was certainly some stress in the Stone Age but if you were able avoid becoming some creature's lunch or you brought down an animal for your own, the stress dissipated quickly. Americans' stress starts with the morning alarm and doesn't end until the TV screen goes blank, if then. Physicians are aware that stress is a major factor in diseases of the heart and perhaps other organ systems.

You're not likely to find many obese persons in Cuba and certainly not any who are morbidly obese. Those who weigh in excess of 300 pounds comprise about 5 percent of our population. In Cuba such nutritional affluence would make them suspect of being clandestine capitalists. With little obesity there is less heart disease and type 2 diabetes, disorders that are not only among the leading causes of death in the United States but horribly expensive ones as well.

Instead of moving to Cuba, consider imitating some of their habits. Eat less, get more physically active and spend more time relaxing with those you care about. Those things matter.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.