playing the odds - healthy and longevity

playing the odds - healthy and longevity

We've all seen those headlines about diet and exercise reducing the risk of certain diseases, right? Consider this wellness letter from the University of Berkeley in California:

"For every 1% reduction in high blood cholesterol, there's a 2 to 3% decline in the risk of heart attack."

OK - so I reduce my cholesterol and I won't have a heart attack? Well, not exactly. The percentages can be deceiving - they work based on a large population of similar people, but not necessarily for any one individual person.

First lets look at some people who have had unexpected results:

Pope Benedict XVI - the Pope drinks 4 cans of Fanta soda each day, and has ever since he was a kid. (For those who don't know, Fanta soda was created in Europe during the late 1930s. Raw materials were slim due to the war, so they used the "leftovers of the leftovers" for this soda.) Yet, even with all this sugar-soda drinking, the Pope is a healthy 85 years old today.

Jim Fixx - Jim Fixx wrote the book on running. He was a smart guy, he knew about the benefits of being healthy, and he ran a lot. And he died of a heart attack at the age of 52. (turns out he had a family history of heart disease.)

My Paternal Grandfather - My Dad's Dad was not a vision of health. I don't ever remember a time of him being active, vibrant and full of life - he was "old" when I was a kid. (He was very smart though - more likely to challenge me mentally than physically.) He ate pretty much whatever he wanted. He drank more than what was considered healthy. He rarely, if ever, exercised. And through all that, he lived into his 90's.

My Dad - Unlike his father, my dad was Mr. Health. Lots of sports and exercise, with healthy organic foods in moderation. He lived, from a health standpoint, the way every doctor would recommend. And he died from complications of a major stroke at the age of 67.

Taking the emotion out of it, and just looking at the facts - the irony of my Dad's and Grandfather's lifestyles and lifespan brings home the point of this article.

Now let's look at odds as individuals compared with a population

The thing about odds is they work for a population, but they aren't perfect for a small group, and they don't have any bearing on an individual. To illustrate this point, let's go to Vegas:

If you bet $100 on one spin of the roulette wheel to be red or black, you have a 47.4% chance of doubling your money. But the odds don't matter for this one spin; you're either going to have $200 or $0 when the ball lands on a number.

image courtesy of Microsoft clipart

Now, over the course of a thousand spins, you're likely to win about 47.4% of them and lose 52.6%, which means you'll double your money 474 times and lose your money 526 times, which means you'll turn your $100,000 into $94,800 - a losing proposition. (much like unhealthy eating and not enough exercise.)

What if we were able to make roulette healthier, and increase our odds of winning by 20%? (as if we could reduce the game's cholesterol level..) Now, instead of a 47.4% chance of winning, we have a 56.9% chance. That's a lot better, right?

Not necessarily for any one individual. Spin the wheel one time, and you'll end up with either $200 or $0; there still isn't a middle ground. The game might be "healthier", but many single spinners are going to end up with nothing. (like Jim Fixx, or my Dad - the game is healthy, but not everyone gets to live to a ripe old age..)

However, an amazing thing happens when you apply this to a population..

Over the course of 1,000 spins, this new, healthier version of the game is likely to turn our $100,000 into $113,400! (As a population, being healthy returns positive results.)

Bottom Line

You should eat healthier (less) and move more. It'll make you feel better. It'll make you look better. And it'll increase your odds of living a longer, healthier life. But it doesn't guaranty it. Some of you are going to eat healthy and still might not get to enjoy the fruits of longevity. (sorry to be a downer.) And some of you might outlive us all, even without being healthy.

However, if our population eats healthier (less) and moves more, and reduces this current obesity trend, we will have fewer diseases and early deaths among us - it'll be like rigging the roulette wheel in our favor!

Do your part, and help your friends do theirs.

-Chris Butterworth