09 May PERILS OF MODERN LIVING
“The growing burden of chronic diseases, which arise from an evolutionary mismatch between past human environments and modern-day living, may be central to rising rates of depression. Declining social capital and greater inequality and loneliness are candidate mediators of a depressiogenic social milieu. Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially isolated. These changes in lifestyle each contribute to poor physical health and affect the incidence and treatment of depression.”
I came upon this quote while reading a book. It so resonated with what I am seeing in my work that I searched for the 2012 study that it came from. While the paper refers mainly to depression, the behavioural risk factors are shared by most chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and other inflammatory disorders.
Please read the actual paper if you are so inclined. I’d like to present the key findings with my observations as food for thought.
Are We Facing An Epidermic?
- Depression (and other chronic illnesses) is a disease of modernity.
- Recent studies are reporting greater life-time risks of mood disorders and depression in each successive generation.
- Young adults are more likely to develop depression with an earlier age of onset.
- Anxiety in children and college students have increased dramatically.
“In spite of accumulating material wealth and a rising standard of living, why would younger people have a higher risk of depression than their parents and grandparents?” the author of the paper asks. Indeed we are reading more and more in the press nowadays about students in developed countries committing suicide.
While drug, alcohol abuse and overall trend of deteriorating mental health support are possible explanations, studies have found an association between modernisation and higher rates of depression and chronic diseases.
Obesity, itself a disease of modernity largely driven by poor diet and physical inactivity, increases the risk of depression and other chronic diseases. Many studies have linked obesity to depression and vice versa.
Sunlight and Sleep
Inadequate sunlight exposure and sleep deprivation, characteristic of modern living, contribute to the rise of chronic illnesses and depression.
Modern societies promote toxic social environment with increasing competition, inequality and social isolation, the paper said.
My observation is that modern societies are aware of the importance of diet and physical activity in preventing and improving ill health, although there is still confusion and issues with what is a healthy diet without taking the unique biochemistry of individuals into account.
There is little awareness of the importance of sunlight exposure and sleep is the easiest to sacrifice when faced with the many demands of modern living. We have the fear of developing skin cancer from being out in the sun drummed into us and most people in modern cities spend long hours working indoors.
The paper states “inadequate sunlight exposure is the principal cause of the modern epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, which has well-documented associations with diseases of modernity”.
We need a well-regulated body clock or circadian rhythm to release hormones and brain neurotransmitters that balance our moods and other aspects of health. Bright light at the right times of the day does this job.
“As an extreme example, long-term shift workers exhibit severe circadian dysfunction and are at an increased risk of chronic diseases, e.g. metabolic syndrome, diabetes mellitus type 2”, the paper said.
We do not have to be shift workers to exhibit similar behavior in that we are up into the early hours staring into our mobile devices or computer screens. The blue light from these devices suppresses production of melatonin. This affects our sleep quality, circadian rhythm and deprives us of other benefits from melatonin such as anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-depressant and anti-aging effects.
Few people I know meet the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation of 7-9 hours of sleep for adults and I’m just as guilty. Insomnia, either difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep seems commonplace as well.
Studies show that “acute sleep deprivation decreases glucose tolerance and causes endocrine dysfunction similar to that seen in obesity-related chronic diseases”. Major depressive disorders can be predicted from reduced amount and/or quality of sleep.
Perhaps the least awareness is of the effects of our social environment on health. Modern city dwellers face rising competition for jobs locally and on a global scale. Competition extends to gaining entry into desirable schools and this is not just admission into colleges and universities.
We face constant threats and become increasingly isolated while living in a world of technological connectivity. One of the studies cited attributed the rise of mental health disorders among young adults to a shift in cultural emphasis away from intrinsic goals like social relationships, community and competence to extrinsic goals – money, status and appearance.
Another study cited showed inequalities have risen in modernized societies and “unequal societies tend to have lower overall health and higher levels of social distrust, competition and status anxiety”.
Where Do We Go From Here?
No doubt more studies will be done to unravel the complexities of societal changes and their effects on health. But we as individuals can be more aware of our daily habits, behaviours and the pressures we face.
We can decide to make positive changes and make a plan to improve on diet, physical activities, sleep, sunlight and social interaction.
Then take action. I suggest starting small and easy, perhaps one or two changes in any of the aspects. Examples are reduce consumption of processed foods, get 20 minutes of morning sunshine three times a week, go to bed an hour earlier or walk with a group on a weekend, gaining both exercise and social interaction.
Finally list your achievements and keep building from there. If you are suffering from a chronic illness or need help with making dietary/lifestyle changes, do not hesitate to consult an appropriate medical or health professional.