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The New York Times Afflicts the Afflicted
April 20, 2005
Rebecca Goldin
Effects of unhealthy living impossible to reverse by midlife, paper claims.

It seems the New York Times thinks that we are all doomed to death and disease, so there is no point in changing our way of living. The paper featured an utterly demoralizing article claiming that, by midlife, we can never erase all the unhealthy behaviors our bodies have suffered.

“Science is pretty clear on all of this: There are real limits to what can be done to reverse the damage caused by a lifetime of unhealthy living. Other than lung cancer, which is mostly a disease of smokers, there are few diseases that are preventable by changing behavior in midlife,” wrote Gina Kolata in the April 17 Week in Review Section.

And even lung cancer cannot be avoided, as evidenced by Peter Jennings’ battle with the disease, even after quitting smoking (for a while).

According to the Times, the depressing list of efforts that go nowhere include avoiding the sun (which does not prevent melanoma), eating five servings of fruit and vegetables (which does not prevent cancer), popping calcium pills (which does not prevent osteoporosis), lifting weights (which won’t increase muscle mass), and a regular regimen of walking or running (which won’t forestall a heart attack).

To the extent that the science is clear on this, the New York Times is simply wrong. We may not be able to prevent disease, but even changes at midlife will affect the probability of getting disease.

Avoiding the sun does not prevent melanoma, but it does reduce the likelihood of getting it. According to the American Cancer Institute (ACI), the likelihood of developing this form of skin cancer is increased with regular exposure to ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight.

Eating five servings of fruit and vegetables does not by itself prevent cancer, but it does reduce the rate of cancer, especially when it is part of an overall healthy diet and exercise program. According the ACI, “Evidence suggests that one third of the 550,000 cancer deaths that occur in the United States each year are due to unhealthy diet and insufficient physical activity.”

And a healthy diet with an exercise program does extend your life, on average. According to the American Heart Association, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess body weight all contribute to the risk of heart disease, and they can be addressed by appropriate exercise and diet.

And positive changes in lifestyle can be made at any point in time. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “There is no demographic or social group in America that could not benefit from becoming more active.” In addition, the CDC reports that obesity contributes to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States.

No one can guarantee that he or she won’t have a heart attack or get a life-threatening form of cancer. We’re talking about the odds of this happening, not whether they occur or not in the most undeserving heath-fanatic. Clearly there are factors that are currently out of our reach for prevention treatment (such as genetic ones). But changing our lifestyle to quit smoking, eat healthier, and get more exercise does make a difference. Even in midlife.