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July 29, 2006

Humans Are Bigger, Healthier -- Michael

No, not compared to our ancient ancestors, but compared to our great-great-grandparents 100 years ago. Nor are we talking about gradual, marginal improvements. Our species has undergone radical change in the last century. In the mid-1800s, the norm was to contract some kind of debilitating illness in your forties and die in your fifties. Not so any more:

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

. . .

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.

Better diet, you're thinking, and better medical care.

It's more than that.


The proposed reasons are as unexpected as the changes themselves. Improved medical care is only part of the explanation; studies suggest that the effects seem to have been set in motion by events early in life, even in the womb, that show up in middle and old age.

“What happens before the age of 2 has a permanent, lasting effect on your health, and that includes aging,” said Dr. David J. P. Barker, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southampton in England.

Each event can touch off others. Less cardiovascular disease, for example, can mean less dementia in old age. The reason is that cardiovascular disease can precipitate mini-strokes, which can cause dementia. Cardiovascular disease is also a suspected risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

The changes are not incremental -- in just 100 years they are truly striking:

In 1900, 13 percent of people who were 65 could expect to see 85. Now, nearly half of 65-year-olds can expect to live that long.

People even look different today. American men, for example, are nearly 3 inches taller than they were 100 years ago and about 50 pounds heavier.

“We’ve been transformed,” Dr. Fogel said.

And, the article says, the changes are happening all over the planet.

Just thirty years ago, I couldn't have imagined that a Chinese guy would be the starting center for the Houston Rockets.

NYT - So Big and Healthy Nowadays That Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You

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posted by Ace at 02:18 PM

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