Take it from an anthropologist–and you may live longer

It often seems that I learned more about human health while earning my Ph.D. in anthropology than I did in medical school. There are probably a few reasons why that is. First, the anthropologists who taught me had not yet become over-specialized or politically correct in their view of human health. Secondly, anthropologists view humans as more than just machines subject to the latest technology. Humans are social and cultural beings. And this affects our health… profoundly.

In fact, any anthropologist will tell you that how long you live has a lot to do with your environment. Your family. Your culture. And your history. It’s not just about your DNA.

Anthropology is a relatively recent “academic” field. It arose after studies such as Egyptology, Oriental Studies, and History had already made it onto the academic map.

What we commonly call “history” is really social history, or even “documentary history.” That is, the past as revealed through written records. If somebody never wrote it down, it never existed. As far as historians are concerned.

Anthropology also looks at culture and material records of the past. Such as archaeological relics, tools and habitations. Anthropologists also study societies with no written records. These societies passed knowledge down through oral traditions.

So, literally, anthropologists study “prehistoric” societies. That is, societies that lived before– or without–written records.

There were still “prehistoric” societies in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific as little as 100 years ago. Studying these prehistoric humans vastly expanded our understanding of human biology and culture. And it should have expanded our view of human health as well.

Instead, modern medical researchers now rely almost exclusively on “vital statistics” in an effort to understand the social aspects of human existence.

We began keeping these records on a large scale in the 19th century. They became especially important to rulers of emerging nation-states. Vital statistics helped leaders gauge the “war-fighting” capacity of their populations.

Otto von Bismarck, the leader of the German Empire during the mid-to-late 1800s, placed great emphasis on vital statistics. He used them for reasons of state security and defense. In fact, the term “statistics” comes from the word “state.” (Another reason to be suspicious of them, for sure.)

Longevity is a vital statistic that measures life expectancy. Until the modern medical era, high infant and child mortality rates pulled down national longevity rates. But if you make it past the perils of childhood, life expectancy rates rise dramatically.

Lifespan, on the other hand, refers to the average age reached by a population. And we now know that some humans throughout history lived into advanced old age. It’s just that fewer people made it that far.

It’s easy to confuse longevity with lifespan. It even contributed to modern medical experts dismissing the findings that many diseases–such as cancer–were extremely rare or non-existent in prehistoric populations.

They claim that people simply did not live long enough to develop diseases that we typically associate with older age.

But we know that’s not true.

Some people in human societies always lived that long. In fact, even 30,000 years ago in the Paleolithic period (the “Old” Stone Age), some people lived into old age. Paleontological studies prove this fact.

About 10,000 years ago, nomadic people began settling down in one place to grow and irrigate crops. They started to establish towns and cities. Some archaeological researchers believe this development actually spurred a temporary decline–rather than improvement–in health and longevity.

Starting about 5,000 years ago, you can find plenty of evidence–Egyptian mummies, for example–showing that people did live long enough to get cancer. They just didn’t get it. I’ll tell you more about the diseases they did get, and what that means for heart disease and inflammation, in the June 2013 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you haven’t become a subscriber yet, you can get started here.

From the Old Stone Age through to the 19th century, most people at least made it into their 50s. Once they survived the perils of childhood, that is.

The most recent rapid increase in life expectancy started in the 1880s. This occurred in North America, Europe, and Japan. Declines in childhood mortality accompanied this increase in life expectancy.

By the mid-late 20th century, fertility rates also began to decline. As a result, population sizes in industrialized parts of the world stabilized. And in places like Japan and most of Western Europe, population sizes are even in the process of declining.

Even in the U.S., population growth has slowed. While U.S. life expectancy is stuck in the mid-70s. We still have an unacceptably high rate of infant mortality.  Especially since we spend more on health care than any country in the world. Plus, we now see many more  “premature” deaths in adults who make it past childhood but still don’t make it to old age.

Unfortunately, the quest for a cancer cure or an “anti-aging” miracle probably won’t raise longevity rates. Especially given the demographic trends occurring over the past 30,000 years.

But the good news is, if you have made it this far, there is a lot you can still do to keep improving your life expectancy. Remember, your own life expectancy can change throughout your life. In fact, the longer you live, the longer you are expected to keep on living.

I’ll keep telling you about how to improve your life expectancy, and your quality of life, as the scientific evidence comes in.