In The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter argues that despite spectacular advances in the treatment of acute infections, medical science has been less successful in the treatment of chronic...

In The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter argues that despite spectacular advances in the treatment of acute infections, medical science has been less successful in the treatment of chronic and degenerative conditions. He attributes much of this to diet (p. 559). Could there also be other reasons, such as the aging populations of Western countries? In your opinion, are there other factors that play a role in this phenomenon?


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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his informative and insightful history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, Roy Porter correctly attributes to the causes of chronic and degenerative diseases the diets of many advanced Western societies, which one would presume would benefit by their aggregate levels of education and the advanced state of medical research.  That chronic and degenerative conditions continue to be diagnosed and treated through pharmacological means itself according to Porter, accounts for some of the problem.  As he wrote in his history of medicine:

“The irony is that the healthier western society becomes, the more medicine it craves – indeed, it regards maximum access as a right and duty.  Especially in free market America, immense pressures are created – by the medical profession, by medi-business, the media, by the high pressure advertising of pharmaceutical companies, and dutiful (or susceptible individuals – to expand the diagnosis of treatable illness.  Scares are created. People are bamboozled into lab tests, often of dubious reliability.  Thanks to diagnostic creep ever more disorders are revealed” 

As most would agree, however, incidences of chronic and degenerative conditions have numerous causes, most prominently, genetics and the physiological predisposition of people to develop conditions suffered by earlier generations of their family.  It is well-established that Alzheimer’s Disease, for instance, results from a genetic mutation that is hereditary, although additional causes are believed to exist.  Other causes of such conditions are environmental.  Prolonged periods of stress are known to adversely affect immune systems, leaving individuals susceptible to a whole range of chronic illnesses.  Pollutants are also a major contributor to illness.  According to a 2007 study by researchers at Cornell University, as many as 40 percent of deaths are attributable to various forms of pollution and environmental contamination.  As that study concluded,

“Air pollution from smoke and various chemicals kills three million people a year.  In the United States alone, about three million tons of toxic chemicals are released into the environment – contributing to cancer, birth defects, immune system defects, and many other serious health problems.” [“Water, Air and Soil Pollution Causes 40 Percent of Deaths Worldwide, Cornell Research Survey Finds,” August 2, 2007;]

While debilitating and degenerative conditions have a number of causes, however, the linkage between diet and health cannot be disputed.  Numerous medical studies have concluded that dietary practices are directly linked to physical, and often emotional, well-being.  The Mayo Clinic, for example, has concluded that the dietary practices of people living around the coast of the Mediterranean Sea are notable for their nutritional benefits.  As the Clinic states:

“Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.” [][Emphasis added]

The great irony of Western lifestyles, especially in the United States and Great Britain, is that these countries possess the most advanced medical technologies in the world, and boast highly-educated populaces, yet experience enormously high rates of preventable illnesses.  Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol – and the American export of fast-food chains has contributed to the spread of unhealthy diets in countries where dietary practices have historically been healthy, for instance, Japan – contribute to degenerative diseases by poisoning the brain as well as the circulatory system.  As noted, however, genetics and environment are very important factors as well.