An upbeat message for 2016 | The Body of Evidence

An upbeat message for 2016

It's easy to become depressed about the news, and to think that everything out there is trying to kill you. But I think it's worthwhile to start the new year with a little bit of truth, and the truth is we are actually healthier now than we have ever been.

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With the New Year upon us, I thought I would take the opportunity to share with you an important and surprising fact about your health. Your health is actually pretty darn good.

That’s not what you usually hear when you watch television, or scroll through that bastion of informative wisdom we call the Internet. In fact, if you listen to news reports you would think that the human race was teetering on the brink of extinction. Cancer rates are going up, everyone is getting Alzheimer’s disease, and everyone (or at least everyone you know) seems to be sick. It is a depressing world view. But it isn’t actually true.

Let’s start with cancer. Contrary to popular belief, cancer is not becoming more common in our society. You may have heard that last year, the Canadian Cancer Society published a report saying that the annual number of new cancer cases would increase 79 per cent by 2030. This was widely reported by the media and was almost universally misunderstood. In one sense it is true. The total number of cancer cases is going up. But that is due to two reasons. First, the population of this country is increasing. Since the year 2000, the population jumped from 30 to 35 million people. So even if the risk of cancer stays the same, the total number of cases will go up simply because the population has grown. The second issue is the aging population. Since age is the single most important risk factor for cancer, as the baby boomers get older, there will logically be more cases of cancer diagnosed.

So this supposed jump in cancer cases is being driven by a growing population and an aging population, rather than by any actual change in the disease itself. So no, GMOs are not to blame. No, dangerous chemicals are not in our food. No, vaccines are not killing your children. No, cancer has not become more aggressive and deadly. In fact, the Canadian Cancer Society predicts that, once you adjust for age and population growth, the number of new cancer cases per year is basically the same as it was in 1986.

But the number of deaths due to cancer is down, way down. Compared to 1986, the number of people dying from cancer every year has dropped considerably when you adjust for age. Since that time, an estimated 143,424 cancer deaths have been avoided because of better screening, less smoking and improvements in treatment.

The cynics among you will see that people are simply living longer but developing complications like dementia or Alzheimer’s. However that, too, is false. A new report from the University of Newcastle showed that people are living longer, and that those extra years are largely problem free. Over the past 20 years researchers found that life expectancy increased by 4.5 years in men and 3.6 years in women. But more important, they also found that number of years without cognitive impairment, i.e. free of Alzheimer’s disease, increased by 4.2 years and 4.4 years respectively. In fact, most people described their health during these years as excellent or good.

I suppose it is easier to run headlines about cancer epidemics and the ravages of disease. After all, fear gets readers’ attention. I suppose there’s a reason why most newspapers don’t have headlines like “No need to worry.” But the truth of the matter is that people are living longer and living better, too. Yes, the population level burden of disease is rising and this is important for policy-makers. But your risk as an individual is lower now than it has ever been.

So with this new-found knowledge, I hope you look to 2016 with an upbeat attitude, or what Socrates called eudaimonia, the sense of waking every morning and facing the world with confidence, energy and expectation rather than loathing and dread. That is as good a new year’s resolution as any.