The second factor that helped push me towards an awareness that things were not right was a trip I took in 2010 to California, to visit paternal relatives.
It was my first time to that mythical land and I fell in love with the balmy weather, the scenery, the laid-back people and my relatives who couldn’t do enough for me and my family.
However, to my shock and sadness, my relatives exhibited wrecked bodies riddled with the effects of long time chronic diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and specifically, diabetes. One relative went into a deep depression after being on a dialysis machine…the other relative was in danger of losing his job due to his diabetes-induced blindness, and another one was lacking circulation in his feet putting him at risk for infections and potential foot amputations. They ranged in age from 50-60 and none of them were overweight.
It was during long conversations late into the night that I realized that the generation preceding my relatives, i.e. THEIR parents and uncles and aunts back in the old country, were all mostly alive and HEALTHY!!!!! We’re talked about men and women over 90 years old, and a few closer to 110 years old. It was revealed that the oldest uncle (my grand-uncle) died at 108 years old, and he only slowed down when he hit 105 years old. Slowing down, in his case, meant that he couldn’t carry out his daily priestly duties as he was part of the Orthodox church which requires heavy committment from its priests.
Even if you take into account that my paternal side has genes for a long life, the contrast in the state of health between the older generation living in the old country (near the Horn of Africa) and their children spread out in North America was too remarkable not to be noticed.
I proceeded to question my maternal relatives, i.e. my mother and her brothers, who are all suffering from various combinations of chronic diseases themselves (more on them later) and the same phenomena was revealed. Her elderly relatives, all of them in their 80s and 90s, were active, going on about their lives, not on any medication, riding their bikes to work (they still worked!) and overall in a much better state of health than their offspring in the West.
Later in that week, I took the opportunity of attending a community event to question people about their elderly relatives and the status of their health. Again, remarkably similar observations were made. Most of these elderly relatives were spry, in good physical and mental health and not on any medication. The exceptions were two elderly men with diabetes. A helpful member of my community explained that in the old country, diabetes was considered a rich person’s disease since only wealthy people were able to indulge in desserts and pastries and they often were the ones with cars. Everyone else either walked or biked.
A conversation opened up among one or two circles of people I were interviewing on what conditions prevented people from reaching old age back home. Of course, it’s very unofficial but the consensus was that what killed people back in the old country were infectious diseases mainly due to lack of infrastructure like water mains, sewage plants, vaccinations, etc. If they somehow bypassed or recovered from these diseases then they often made it to very old age. In contrast, developed countries have more or less eradicated infectious diseases and the bane of their health care systems is related to chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and the like.
I had a lot to think about, and was left contemplating this puzzle; the discrepancy between the health of the older generation back in the old country and their children living in the West.
However, a third and terrifying event occurred to kick my journey into nutrition and optimal health into fast gear. That will be addressed in the next post….