FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, July 31, 2006

Instant Evolution: People Bigger, Healthier than their Ancestors

It's no secret that people live longer than did their ancestors. In 1850 the average life expectancy was about 60; today it's close to 80. But new research also finds that we are also taller and heavier than our great-great-grandparents, by about two inches and 30 pounds since 1900.

We also have fewer chronic illnesses that take people out in the prime of life, according to research conducted by the National Institutes of Health that compared the heath of Americans in their 40s and 50 to heath surveys of Union Army veterans taken during the 1860s. Whereas it wasn't uncommon for those in the Civil War era to suffer from arthritis or to die from lung or heart failure in their 40s, their counterparts today have few health problems at that age. Even IQ has seemed to go up, and dementia appears to be falling.

The NIH researchers were particularly surprised at the number of chronic conditions showing up in young people 140 years ago, noting that one in six Union Army enlistees aged 16 to 19 was rejected for a disability (interesting, bearing in mind that the army often accepted recruits who were blind in one eye or who had other serious ailments).

Each generation has experienced better health than its parents -- a phenomenon that's reflected in both developed and developing countries all over the world. The reasons are many, from better nutrition from in-utero through childhood; to more sophisticated surgical treatments, vaccines and medicines; to decrease in workplace hazards; to greater awareness of health issues overall. Researchers also believe that those who survived serious illnesses such as tuberculosis lessened one's resistance to chronic conditions later on, and also theorize that health and nutrition in children before birth and in the first two years is critical to determining one's long-term health prospects. Other studies have found that those born during famines and epidemics (such as the 1918 flu pandemic) are overall less healthy than those born during healthier, more prosperous times.

So, how much longer can the upward trend continue? Transhumanists argue that the sky's the limit, that people should be able to live indefinitely given proper healthcare, body part replacements and nanotechnology. But other healthcare researchers worry that countertrends such as obesity, unintended consequences of medications or environmental phenomena could reverse the upward trend.

Source: The New York Times