Let's go back a hundred years

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2012

The major killer diseases, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease and diabetes were around a century ago, but were not like their counterparts today. If we could turn back the clock a hundred years, this is what those diseases would look like.

In 1912 rheumatic heart disease, syphilis and congenital heart defects were common. Coronary artery disease was so rare that the first description of a heart attack in a medical journal didn't appear until that year. Mostly because of the wide availability of antibiotics, rheumatic heart disease has disappeared and heart disease caused by syphilis has become a medical curiosity. Surgeons can repair almost every type of heart defect in babies, sometimes even before they are born. Solely due to our lifestyle we have replaced these nearly extinct conditions with coronary artery disease, which kills nearly 1,000 Americans every day.

Strokes were different back then. Most were due to rupture of a blood vessel in the brain and death came quickly. Modern strokes are due to decades-long narrowing of those vessels and the brain dies a slow death.

Cancer experts note that genetics accounts for only about 10 to 15 percent of cancers. The great majority are the result of smoking, obesity and improper diet. In the early 20th century lung cancer was so uncommon that medical textbooks of the day didn't even mention it. Obesity and junk food were quite uncommon a hundred years ago when the population was on the move from farms to cities and most industries were not yet fully mechanized by steam or electricity. The plant-rich diet and work requirements of the family farm kept most cancers at bay. Factory and office workers had no handy McDonald's.

If you were a glassblower or trumpet-player before the First World War you might have suffered from chronic lung disease but only if your lungs were predisposed to it by asthma (also not very common) or an inherited weakness of the lungs' supporting framework. What a difference a century makes. You have probably seen victims of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the mall, carrying or dragging a portable supply of oxygen. It is, after all, the third leading cause of death.

Type 2 diabetes has emerged — actually skyrocketed — only in the past few decades. With rare exceptions it is an exercise-deficiency disorder. Diet matters but exercise is essential.

We eliminated yesterday's disease. Let's work on today's.

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.