Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Body - A Guide For Occupants

Author Bill Bryson is beloved by bloggers - his style is exemplary. Erudite yet easy to read, with a folksy wit that keeps you on the author's side. This is the fourth of his books I've read (he has written 20); his best to date is A Short History of Nearly Everything (which I reviewed here).

The Body - A Guide For Occupants was published just two months ago, and I am grateful to my brother Marek for getting me a copy.

In the space of 386 pages (augmented by a rich bibliography), Bryson looks at the human body from every aspect; skin and bones, brains, organs, blood and guts (and gut flora) and every activity - eating, sleeping, conception and birth - and the diseases that plague us. Everything well explained with plenty of references about how we thought things worked - and how we think they work now - and there's still many unknowns that science has yet to crack. Plenty of gallows humour, especially at the expense of physicians long gone who were so badly mistaken.

Despite Bryson's cheerful demeanour, there is a pessimistic undertone to the book. The villains are the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the American healthcare sector and our consumerist lifestyle. Corporate profits are actually harming us, he suggests.

The year 2011 was the first in history, he says, when more humans died as a result of diseases brought on by civilisation (heart, specific cancers, Type 2 diabetes) than died of infectious diseases. The number of people suffering from Crohn's disease and asthma is rising ever higher - and science doesn't know what causes them - except that they are far more prevalent in rich countries than in the developing world.

As we eradicate old killers, new ones creep up to take their place - new ones that we're bringing upon ourselves.

Bryson continually stresses the need for exercise and good diet, something Americans clearly lack (the average American walks half a kilometre a day!). Sugar is the killer, unnecessary calories consumed and not exercised away. Another potential killer is the gross overuse of antibiotics, prescribed by doctors in many cases where they are literally useless. The result is that bacteria are building up resistance to antibiotics and our immune systems may in future be unable to protect us against new killer bugs.

Big pharma's focus on developing new 'blockbuster' drugs that will fight diseases like Alzheimers is is becoming less and less effective - far fewer new medicines are entering the market as their efficacy is proved in clinical trials to be insufficient. Indeed, poorly-performing drugs that offer the patient little benefit are too commonly prescribed. Atenolol, a blood-pressure reducing drug that my mother was on for many years was later found to "reduce blood pressure, but did not reduce heart attacks or fatalities compared with giving no treatment at all. People on atenolol expired at the same rate as everyone else, but had better blood-pressure numbers when they died."

For health-conscious readers such as myself, the book is a case of confirmation bias - reading it makes me smug about my exercise routines and diet. For others, especially the drive-your-butt-to-work community and those of you over-fond of cakes, biscuits and confectionery, it may act as a wake-up call. "Going for regular walks reduces the risk of heart attack or stroke by 31%. An analysis of 655,000 people in 2012 found that being active for just 11 minutes a day after the age of 40 yielded 1.8 years of added life expectancy. Being active for an hour or more a day improved life expectancy by 4.2 years. As well as strengthening bones, exercise boosts your immune system, nurtures hormones, lessens the risk of getting diabetes and a number of cancers (including breast and colorectal), improves mood and even staves off senility." Ah, and porridge. Eat porridge, because oats scour the intestines and remove the bad cholesterol. Daily porridge kept my father in good health right up to the end (at 96).

It is a book to be read at a young age; like A Short History of Nearly Everything, which every high-school pupil should read before starting university, The Body needs to be compulsory reading for teenagers before they get into a lifetime of bad habits. [One lesson for me is to go to bed earlier - there's a link between rising blood pressure and falling asleep in the early hours.]

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