Girls deserve better than this

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2006

The general public's perception of the Stone Age girl is something between a bedraggled, primitive Cinderella and the brilliant, inventive heroine of a Jean Auel novel. Life back then might have been short but it was not as horrible as most people think. Humans did, after all, propagate successfully and eventually dominated the planet. A weakling species could never have accomplished so much.

Skeletal remains from 50 or 100 thousand years ago reveal that both men and women, including young people, were well-muscled and had strong, thick bones. Modern hunter-gatherers live exactly the way that our ancestors did and they give us clues that fossil bones cannot: what it was like to be a young woman back in the Stone Age.

Like their Stone Age ancestors, most hunter-gatherer females don't live beyond the age of 60 years but if they do they have no signs of osteoporosis. That's because their childhood is an active, strenuous one and they get plenty of easily absorbed calcium from a high intake of plant foods. That bone-building combination is lacking from the lifestyle of the 21st century Western child who enters the childbearing years with less bone mass than normal for a human female. The result is an increased risk of osteoporosis as she enters middle age.

Girls born in this century enter puberty at about 12 years of age, about 6 years before their hunter-gatherer contemporaries. It leaves them more susceptible to cancers of the ovary and breast.

The 18-year-old hunter-gatherer girl often becomes pregnant within a year or so after she reaches maturity and she is likely to have a child about every 4 years. Her on-demand breastfeeding schedule will keep her from becoming pregnant until she weans her child, so she won't ovulate during these years. Modern women ovulate many more times because of early puberty, late pregnancy, scheduled or absent breastfeeding and few subsequent pregnancies. This incessant ovulation appears to increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

The female breast doesn't reach full maturity until a normal pregnancy has occurred. That immature condition leaves breast tissue vulnerable to environmental toxins such as tobacco smoke. Women who have smoked during their teen years are more likely to develop breast cancer.

No Stone Age girl ever experienced gestational diabetes, a condition that is related to obesity and that appears to be doubling every half-generation. Unable to process blood sugar normally, the gestational diabetic and her infant may develop more complications of pregnancy. About half the women who develop gestational diabetes will eventually develop frank diabetes.

We can protect our daughters from most of these hazards, if not all, by helping them to develop lifestyle habits that are anything but burdensome but that are more consistent with our genetic makeup. Just one hour or so of vigorous play every day throughout childhood is all that it takes to build strong bones when calcium intake is adequate. That same level of physical activity and good nutrition will sidestep gestational and type 2 diabetes. Not smoking will not only help to avoid breast cancer, it will lower her risk of lung cancer and chronic lung disease.

Girls deserve to be taught how to make good lifestyle choices.

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.