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People may be living longer, but they suffer from lack of a genuine health care system

in Opinion/The Nonagenarian’s Notebook by

Canadians are living longer, with current life expectancy now averaging 81. Statistics Canada reports that last year 750,000 Canadians were in their 80s and 305,000 in their 90s, with women significantly outnumbering men in both categories. (Of the 305,000 nonagenarians, more than 200,000 are female.)

But StatsCan can’t measure the well-being of these senior citizens. One of its recent studies found that the health of most Canadians starts to deteriorate at the age of 69, but the extent and cause of that decline varies considerably at the individual level and is not measureable. Obviously, it depends on the different internal and external determinants of health that affect each of us, and whether we can exert any control over them.

People who choose a self-indulgent and dissolute lifestyle can shorten their life-spans to 70 or much sooner. But even when we eat nutritious food, exercise, and do our best to nurture wellness, we can still be incapacitated by one of Shakespeare’s “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

For far too many of us, the “golden years” turn out to be no better than bronze.

You’ve heard the old cliché that “there’s only one thing worse than growing old, and that’s not growing old.” But there’s another eventuality that is arguably worse: growing old and sick. Very sick. So sick that you become a burden on your family and a financial drain on the country’s “health care” system.

That’s the horrible fate of far too many of our senior citizens. So many that our nursing homes, long-term and palliative care institutions can’t accommodate all of them. Thousands are bed-ridden or otherwise disabled, many in their own homes or the homes of their children.

I cite this unpleasant reality, not as an inevitable consequence of aging (it isn’t), but because I’m convinced that most of the ills associated with old age are preventable. Well, not indefinitely, of course – we all have to die of something, sometime – but for much longer than the age at which most of our elderly now succumb.

This is not a new idea. Some geriatric specialists and health reformers have been arguing for years that the priority should be to prevent ailments rather than trying to alleviate them after they occur. Such a switch would not only improve and prolong life spans, but also save many billions now spent on remedial surgery, drugs, hospital stays, and home care.

Fending for ourselves

In the absence of a priority given to prevention, we are basically left to fend for ourselves. Those who don’t smoke or overeat or drink too much alcohol, and keep physically and mentally fit have a good chance of enjoying a long and salubrious life. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Accidents do happen, and our fate is predestined to some extent by the genes we inherit. But the lifestyle we choose can often be the deciding factor.

Many people, however, are not free to choose the kind of lives they’d like to lead. They can refrain from bad habits, but if they’re poor, uneducated, unemployed, or mired in menial and low-paying jobs, with arduous family responsibilities, their quality of life is often beyond their control. They need help from local, provincial, and federal governments, but such truly caring and progressive politicians are in short supply in Canada. When it comes to promoting good health — apart from efforts to discourage tobacco use and drunk driving — most politicians are pretty much content to let Canadians look after themselves.

This is an onerous responsibility. Even those among us who are affluent and live in luxury are not invulnerable to the perils of an increasingly contaminated environment. Much of our water and soil is polluted, and the air we breathe is laden with toxins that are inimical to our health.

Our powerful personal defence

Nature endowed each of us at birth with a tremendously powerful defence mechanism – the immune system – which in theory (and for some of us in practice) can repel or destroy even the most dangerous microbial attackers.

A crucial flash of enlightenment in my life came in 1976 when I read a book by an unorthodox U.S. physician, Dr. Ronald J. Glasser. It was titled The Body is the Hero, and it advanced the then heretical proposition that our immune system, if properly nurtured, can defeat any virus, infection, or other foreign matter that invades our body.

The message of Dr. Glasser’s book can be summed up in these few words: Medicine doesn’t cure us – our bodies cure themselves. He argued that, for most maladies other than those that require surgery, all a doctor can really do for a patient is help the immune system do the job it was designed to do.

I couldn’t agree more. Better still would be helping the immune system prevent the patient from getting sick in the first place – a task I’ve personally been doing my best to accomplish in the 42 years since I read The Body is the Hero. (Dr. Glasser practises what he preaches. He’s still alive and active and recently updated and republished this seminal book.)

Hypothetically, our bodies should be able to keep the immune system strong enough to maintain optimum health and vigor. That would require, among other things, providing the immune system with the organic “armaments” it needs for a strong defence system.

There was a time when it was possible to do that simply by eating the right foods – foods rich in all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the human body and its immune system require. But that was in a time when such natural organic foods were widely available, when people weren’t crowded into cities and workplaces conducive to the spread of disease, when the air, water and soil were not contaminated, and when the processed junk food many millions now consume was not so readily available.

Today, much of our food is grown in denatured soil doused with poisonous pesticides and herbicides, and “processed” in ways that leach out much of its natural goodness. And this has happened at a time when our bodies are exposed to thousands of harmful chemicals, to smog and polluted air and water – and thus more urgently in need of a strong immune system than ever before.

Cancer and chemicals

I’ve lived long enough to remember when far fewer people fell victim to cancer. But rates of affliction have quadrupled over the past 60 years. Why? Mainly because the rates of carcinogenic chemicals that end up in our air, water, soil and food have also quadrupled. And only about one in a dozen of these industrial chemicals is properly tested before its release is officially approved.

We can’t avoid ingesting these toxins. They are spewed into the environment in such quantities that no one can escape them. A study conducted several years ago by Environmental Defence Canada (EDC) tested the blood of 11 volunteers across the country for the presence of 88 toxic chemicals. It found that every one of these Canadians – including renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman – had many of these contaminants in their blood. But, because only 11 people were tested (such elaborate tests are expensive), Health Canada dismissed the results as “not statistically significant.”

This reaction was typical of a government agency with such a dubious record of health protection. The fact that the 11 volunteers varied in age, gender, location, occupation and lifestyle, and that every one of them had chemically contaminated blood, is surely significant.

Dr. Rick Smith, former executive director of EDC, responded sharply to Health Canada’s rejection of the test: “The bottom line is that we are all polluted,” he insisted. “It doesn’t matter where we live, how old we are, how clean-living we are. We all carry inside us hundreds of different pollutants, and they are accumulating inside our bodies every day.”

The 88 chemicals tested for in the study included heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, and other carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances. They are so pervasive and are disseminated so widely that, short of living in a glass bubble, it has become impossible to avoid them. The strain on our immune systems to keep these chemical invaders from afflicting us with disease of some kind – most often cancer — has also been enormously increased.

Lack of government protection

Clearly, the increase of most cancers can be traced to the failure of our governments to protect us from exposure to harmful chemicals. One such chemical was Red Dye 2, an artificial colouring that was widely used in candy bars, cakes, salad dressings, pill coatings, lipstick, and numerous other products, before being belatedly recognized as a carcinogen.

It was then quickly banned in Europe and cited as a dangerous ingredient by the World Health Organization. But, shockingly, it continued to be approved for unlimited use in the United States and Canada for several more years. Why? Because the corporations that made and sold the dye and those that put it in their products wielded enough political lobbying clout to keep it on the market.

That was many years ago, but the situation hasn’t improved since. On the contrary, it’s gotten worse with the infusion of many thousands of additional carcinogens into the air we breathe and the foods we buy and consume. All routinely permitted by our governments and their public “ill-health” agencies.

Dr. Glasser cites Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, in which “the municipal government, in the interest of business and profit, allows tourists to use the city’s baths that it knows are contaminated with typhoid.” He adds, “Only now it is not fictional characters in a make-believe play we’re dealing with, but ourselves and our children. It is not just bacteria and viruses that are of concern, but cancer-causing poisons.”

In a scathing indictment of the politicians and health care agencies entrusted with our safety and health, Dr. Glasser accuses them of not just allowing, but encouraging us “to use, unknowingly and uncomplainingly, these deadly products – for no other reason than corporate greed and profits.”

Yes, we now have the misfortune to live at a time when the gratification of business avarice and maximization of profits are extolled by our business and political leaders. It’s a world in which we will continue to be denied protection from preventable cancers and other diseases if that protection involves constraining greed and lowering profits.

I happen to be one of the minority of the elderly who have still managed to maintain good health while living into my nineties. I’ve obviously benefitted from inheriting strong genes, eschewing tobacco, debilitating drugs, and other harmful vices, and from taking ample vitamin and mineral supplements every day. This is a lifestyle, however, that many elders find difficult to adopt or even afford. Especially when they have to depend on a “health care system” that only “treats” them after they get sick instead of helping them stay well.

They happen to live in a country in which profit prevails over prevention. For the big pharmaceutical companies and other suppliers of pills and potions, the more people who become ill, the higher their profits. And they have enough political influence with our neoliberal governments to ensure that “public health care” will in reality always be a form of private profit care.

At least as long as so many millions of voters suffering from or threatened by preventable diseases remain unaware that their illness might well have been averted if we had a genuine health care system.

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