As the media frequently points out, people are bigger now.
What is often not pointed out is that we’re also taller and longer lived. The Rotund’s post on the definition of health and yesterday’s discussion on redefining illnesses reminded me of this 2006 New York Times article from Gina Kolata.
Scientists used to say that the reason people are living so long these days is that medicine is keeping them alive, though debilitated. But studies like one Dr. Fogel directs, of Union Army veterans, have led many to rethink that notion. […]
The researchers focused on common diseases that are diagnosed in pretty much the same way now as they were in the last century. So they looked at ailments like arthritis, back pain and various kinds of heart disease that can be detected by listening to the heart.
The first surprise was just how sick people were, and for how long. […] They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said.
An accompanying graphic compares statistics from surveys of Union Army veterans in the 1860s with recent NIH surveys. Both surveyed white men aged 50-64. Some examples:
I find this sort of research illuminates our views of the past and how it has influenced what is considered “normal”. The “normal” is thin – but how much of that was influenced by poor nutrition and childhood diseases that stunted growth and contributed to poor health? Maybe if we can move beyond thinking that “thin” automatically means “healthy” or “fit” (and not fall into the trap of considering “fat” to automatically mean “healthy” or “fit”) then we can get to meanings that make sense. :)