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What Are Our Most Dangerous Health Hazards?

If the average American ranked what he believed to be our most dangerous health hazards--the things that we do that cause premature death--the ranking might look something like this:
  1. War
  2. AIDS
  3. Crime
  4. Accidents
  5. Chemicals
  6. Smoking
  7. Alcoholism
This discussion will attempt to show that the ranking actually looks something like this:
  1. Over-eating
  2. Smoking
  3. Alcohol
Most of the other things seem almost insignificant to these top three. The following discussion will offer support of this thesis.

Death--Causes and Probabilities

Since we all want to live long and happy lives, it is wise to study the causes and probabilities of death, in order to see if the statistics give us any clues as to how to increase our longevity. Using recent statistical data, we would expect that about two million Americans will die in the next year. A breakdown of their causes of death will
look something like this:

Cardiovascular diseases 1,100,000 (55%)
Cancer 500,000 (25%)
Accidents 110,000 (5%)
Pneumonia and influenza 59,000 (3%)
Diabetes 35,400 (2%)
Kidney Diseases 21,000 (1%)
Alcoholism 18,000 (1%)
Other 151,000 (8%)
Total 2,000,000 (100%)

Note that this discussion will not deal with abortion, which, in reality, dwarfs all these causes by adding perhaps as many as another 1,500,000 deaths each year.

We see then, that we can expect about 2 million Americans to die each year. Dividing 2,000,000 into the 245,000,000 population, we see that one in every 123 Americans will die in the coming year. This gives us each a 99.18% probability of living another year. Of course, the probability of a younger American living through the coming year are considerably higher than that of an older American. Considering the average life expectancy of some 75 years, and the fact that 73% of all deaths in the U.S. occur at age 75 or older, we are left with 567,000 (27%) premature deaths before age 75. In addition, perhaps 50% of the deaths over age 75 are premature as well, adding 730,000, bringing the total number of premature deaths in the United States to approximately 1.3 million. Why do so many people die prematurely, and what are the primary contributing factors to their premature deaths?

We will now explore the possibility of increasing one's probability of life and thus decreasing his probability of death. Obviously the two biggest killers are heart trouble and cancer. Of every five deaths, four will be attributed to these dreaded diseases! Let's begin by taking a closer look at each one.

Heart Trouble

One of every two people who will die in the coming year will die of some type of heart disorder. Over a million people suffer heart attacks each year and, of these, about 350,000 survive. Every year, 400,000 Americans suffer strokes, 85% due to blood clots in the brain. Vitamins E and C can prevent abnormal clot formation.

There are 42 million Americans with heart trouble or high blood pressure. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, kills hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Experts tell us that the intake of table sugar can contribute to its development. The correct nutrients can help ward off this common problem, along with the intake of adequate vitamin B-6 and vitamin C.

The American Heart Association reports that heart trouble is induced by high blood pressure, smoking, excess consumption of animal fat and cholesterol, obesity or even just being overweight, lack of exercise, lack of regular medical checkups, use of oral contraceptive pills, and the failure to identify and control diabetes. Drinking soft water from which vital nutrients have been removed can also contribute to heart disease. Also, caffeine is connected with heart disease, making coffee, cola, and tea undesirable. Of these three, coffee contains the most caffeine, and tea the least.

In attempts to learn more about heart trouble, the experts note that Eskimos have little cardiovascular trouble, due to their diet of raw fat and meat. Cooking fat in the presence of air leads to the production of atherogenic (atherosclerosis-causing), mutagenic, carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and immune system depressing free radical-initiating organic peroxides. The experts believe it's better to cook meat medium rare, and to use lean meat. Also, aspirin may reduce the risk of heart trouble.

Cancer

One of every four people who will die in the coming year will die of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there are some one million new cancer cases each year. About 75 million Americans now living will eventually die from cancer if its incidence remains unchanged. This is about 1 of 3 Americans.

Lung Cancer

As most people know, one of the most common and deadly types of cancer is lung cancer. One of every 15 people who die will die in the coming year will die of lung cancer. Also, one of every four who will die of cancer will die of lung cancer. Most lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoking and can be prevented by avoiding this cause. The risk factors for lung cancer include heavy cigarette smoking; a history of smoking for 20 years or more, exposure to certain industrial substances such as asbestos--particularly for those who smoke. The type of cigarette is another major factor, depending upon the amount of tar and nicotine it contains.

Breast Cancer

The risk factors for breast cancer include being over 50 years old, never having had children, and having one's first child after the age of 25 or 30. Other risk factors include family history, personal previous history of breast cancer or cysts, and the white race seems to be more at risk than races with darker skin.

Uterine Cancer

The risk factors for uterine cancer (endometrial cancer) include being over 50, of the white race, having one's first intercourse at an early age (15), multiple sex partners, a history of infertility, failure of ovulation, estrogen therapy, late menopause, diabetes or elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, obesity, no births, intake of estrogen hormones, and abnormal uterine bleeding.

Cervical Cancer

The risk factors for cervical cancer include being over 40, having had more than three pregnancies, a history of vaginal viral infections, early 1st intercourse (before age 15 or so), and bleeding between periods or after intercourse.

Colon Cancer

The risk factors for colon and rectum cancer include a family history of these diseases, ulcerative colitis, and a diet high in beef or deficient in fiber.

Skin Cancer

The major risk factor for skin cancer is excess exposure to the sun. Other risk factors include having a fair complexion, and occupational exposure to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds, radioactivity, and radium. Most skin cancers are caused by frequent overexposure to direct sunlight, and can be prevented by avoiding this cause.

Oral Cancer

The major risk factors for oral cancer include heavy smoking and drinking, and especially a combination of both. The use of chewing tobacco is another risk factor, but far less hazardous than smoking and drinking. This may be due to the easy access to the mouth and gums for cleaning during tooth brushing and early detection during dental exams.

Leukemia

The experts cannot tell us what causes leukemia. It may be inherited, and it seems to have a connection to Downs syndrome. Also, it may have a connection to excessive exposure to radiation and certain chemicals such as benzene.

Health Hazards

We will now focus our attention on the most serious health hazards that we discovered in our analysis of the causes of death.

Smoking

People who smoke have a much higher incidence of cancer than those who don't. It is not only the ingredients of cigarettes that induce cancer, but also the smoke itself, and the high level of heat and chemical changes that occur through the burning of these or any materials. Ninety percent of lung cancers and 50% of cancers of the urinary bladder occur in smokers. Smoking has also been implicated in cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, and bladder. Smoking accounts for about 30% of all cancers, and 350,000 premature deaths each year. This figure includes deaths from emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, and heart disease, but it doesn't include 2,000 deaths from house fires caused by careless smoking or as many as 5,000 deaths among nonsmokers who breathe in smoke that others exhale). Smoking is also linked to conditions such as colds and gastric ulcers. Smoking-related cost the nation about $27 billion in medical care. Smoking is the chief single avoidable cause of death in our society. As early as 1979, the Surgeon General, "Cigarette smoking is the single most important environmental factor contributing to premature mortality in the United States."

Benefits

In 1980, there are about 54 million smokers in the U.S., about one in four. (In 1988, there were about 43 million, about one in six.) In 1983, there were 593,600,000,000 (593.6 billion) cigarettes sold. Therefore, each smoker smokes about 11,000 cigarettes per year, or an average of 30 per day, or one and a half packs per day. Cigarettes are big business, and the tobacco industry prides itself in employing over one million people, directly, and indirectly, including such industries as match production and packaging. This gives the tobacco industry a significant percentage of America's private sector labor force. Tobacco provides billions of dollars in federal and state taxes each year (including social security and income tax paid by tobacco employees).

Hazards

Smoking kills about the same number of people each year as the industry employs. Smoking costs Americans billions of dollars in medical bills and lost productivity. Smoking causes wrinkling and off-color complexion. Another ugly statistic about smokers is that most smokers become addicted to cigarettes before the age of 21.

Alcohol

People who drink alcohol--particularly in large quantities--also have a much higher cancer incidence. People who both drink and smoke have far more cancers than either smokers only or drinkers only. The cancer risks for each group are multiplied together, not merely added! Ninety percent of cancers of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, and liver are in smokers who also drink. Thirty five percent of all cancer deaths are due to high-tar cigarettes coupled with excess alcohol consumptions! Forty five percent are caused by improper nutrition (excess caloric intake, excess fat intake--polyunsaturated fat primarily, low fiber diet, deficiency of retinoids and antioxidants, and obesity). Smoking greatly amplifies the hazards of air pollution. Also, excess vitamin A increases cancer risk.


Some 10 million adults in the U.S. are problem drinkers (including alcoholics), and an additional 3.3 million youth.

The Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol are highly dependent upon body weight, speed of drinking, presence of food in the stomach, drinking history, body chemistry, and the type of beverage. The typical drink, one-half ounce of alcohol, is provided by a shot of 80 proof whiskey or vodka, a glass of wine (3 ounces of 20% alcohol), or one beer (12 ounces of 4.5% alcohol).

At .05% blood alcohol level, (2 drinks per hour for a 160-pound man), thought, judgment, and restraint are affected. The drinker becomes carefree and is released from many tensions and inhibitions.

At .10%, voluntary motor actions such as hand and arm movements, walking, and speech become plainly clumsy. In most states, a person with a blood alcohol level of .10% or more is legally presumed to be impaired, intoxicated, or under the influence.

At .20%, the controls of the entire motor area of the brain are measurably impaired, and emotional behavior is also affected. The person staggers and may want to lie down; he may be easily angered, or boisterous, or saddened; he is drunk.

At .30%, the response to stimuli and understanding are dulled. The person is confused and may lapse into stupor. Although still aware, he has poor understanding of what he hears or sees.

At .40% or .50%, the drinker is unconscious. Still higher levels block the centers of the brain which control breathing and heartbeat, and death occurs.

Alcohol adversely affects sensation, perception, motor performance, attention, memory, conceptual processes, emotions, sexuality, and sleep. Mixing alcohol with other drugs is especially dangerous, grossly exaggerating the usual responses.

The long term effects can include damage to the heart, brain, liver, and other major organs, causing various types of muscle diseases and tremors. One essential muscle that is affected is the heart. Some research suggests that alcohol is toxic to the heart, but there is other evidence that light drinkers may have a lower risk of coronary artery disease than abstainers.

Cirrhosis of the liver occurs about eight times as often among alcoholics as among non-alcoholics, yet it also occurs among nondrinkers, and its cause is still sought. Malnutrition has been blamed for cirrhosis. Some research suggests, however, that large amounts of alcohol may cause liver damage even in properly fed subjects.

There is an increased death rate among heavy drinkers from cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, and lung. This effect is compounded when the drinker also smokes. Large quantities of alcohol can irritate the gastrointestinal system. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are mild indications of trouble. Gastritis, ulcers, and pancreatitis often occur among alcoholics. Heavy drinkers have a lowered resistance to pneumonia and other infectious diseases. Alcohol lowers the drinkers immunity to disease.

Heavy drinking over many years may result in serious mental disorders or permanent, irreversible damage to the brain or peripheral nervous system. Mental functions such as memory, judgment, and learning ability can deteriorate severely, and an individual's personality structure and grasp on reality may disintegrate as well.

Alcohol is involved in some 60% of all highway fatalities. Serious problem drinking has been implicated in almost half of the alcohol related deaths; the other half involved young drinkers and social drinkers with a high blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident. One-third of all traffic injuries are related to alcohol. The costs in property damage, wage losses, medical expenses, and insurance costs are immense.

Alcohol is present in up to half of all deaths and injuries in industrial accidents in 1975. Alcohol has been implicated in up to half of civilian aviation accidents in which the pilot died. In these cases, the alcohol may encourage risk-taking and inhibit performance. Alcohol is associated with over half of all drownings, causing poor judgment, faulty coordination, and lack of attention.

Alcohol is involved in most fire fatalities and accidents. Alcohol increases the risk of falling and is involved in most deaths injuries from falls. Alcohol is also very common in many other types of accidents, including food asphyxiation deaths, hypothermia, frost injuries and deaths, snowmobile injuries, and tractor deaths. Half of all homicides and more than one-third of all suicides are alcohol-related.

Some one-third of all arrests in the U.S. are related to the misuse of alcohol, including arrests for disorderly conduct, vagrancy, public drunkenness charge, intoxicated drivers, and violation of liquor laws. The cost to taxpayers for alcohol-related crimes, accidents, health and medical costs, and lost productivity hundreds of billions of dollars each year. The total human cost cannot be measured.

Teenage Drinking

Teenagers usually start drinking due to peer pressure and fear that abstinence will cause them to lose friends. Most of today's teenagers drink, and most had their first drink by age 13.

The Problem Drinker

One authority describes a problem drinker as:

  1. Anyone who must drink in order to function or cope with life.
  2. Anyone who by his own personal definition, or that of his family and friends, frequently drinks to a state of intoxication.
  3. Anyone who goes to work intoxicated.
  4. Anyone who is intoxicated and drives a car.
  5. Anyone who sustains bodily injury requiring medical attention as a consequence of an intoxicated state.
  6. Anyone who, under the influence of alcohol, does something he contends he would never do without alcohol.
Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a state, psychic and unusually also physical, resulting from taking alcohol, characterized by behavioral and other responses that always include a compulsion to take alcohol on a continuous or periodic basis in order to experience its psychic effects, and sometimes to avoid the discomfort of its absence; tolerance may or may not be present. It is a chronic disease, or disorder of behavior, characterized by the repeated drinking of alcoholic beverages to an extent that exceeds customary dietary use or ordinary compliance with the social drinking customs of the community, and which interferes with the drinker's health, interpersonal relations, or economic functioning.

An alcoholic experiences loss of control, finding himself drinking when he intends not to drink, or drinking more than he planned. He has a the presence of structural damage--physiological, psychological, domestic, economic, or social. He uses alcohol as a kind of universal therapy, as a psychopharmacological substance through which he tries to keep his life from coming apart.

The life expectancy of alcoholics is 10 to 12 years shorter than the general public. The mortality rate for men is at least 2.3 times greater than expected, and they suffer more violent deaths than the general population. Alcoholism appears as a cause of death on more than 18,000 death certificates annually. Alcohol contributes to many deaths which are attributed to other causes.

The effects of alcoholism are not limited to the drinker alone. His family, his employer, and society at large are all harmed by his behavior, and all have a stake in helping to prevent the illness from becoming more severe. If one considers the ill effects of drinking problems just on the families of problem drinkers, up to 50 million Americans can be regarded as caught in the web of alcohol abuse. Unhappy marriages, broken homes, desertion, divorce, impoverished families, and deprived or displaced children are all parts of tech toll. The cost to public and private helping agencies for support of families disabled by alcohol problems amounts to millions of dollars per year. Alcoholism puts about one-half million people into hospitals each year.

Alcohol is the most often cited contributing factor in divorce. It is linked to a high percentage of child abuse, spouse abuse, homicides, and suicides; and, thousands of cases of cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and birth defects.

Illicit Drugs

Although the death statistics for illegal drug users are not as staggering as for those of drinkers and smokers, this is probably due to the fact that much of the illegal drug use of today is relatively new, and the long-term effects will not begin to manifest themselves for a few more years. Nevertheless, illegal drugs are widespread killers, and they warrant an investigation here as well.

Cocaine

Cocaine deadens sensation and slows blood flow; stimulates the central nervous system; increased heart rate; raises blood pressure; speeds respiration; increases body temperature; raises blood sugar levels; dilates eye pupils; depresses appetite; increases restlessness; and, alters muscle control.

Marijuana

Use of marijuana causes impairment of eye-hand coordination; unsafe driving; infertility; increased heart rate; panic attacks; distorted visual and time perceptions; anxiety; bronchitis; poor memory; mental confusion; impulsive behavior; and, blurred vision.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are becoming a bigger health risk each year, especially when they are either obtained illegally, or obtained legally but used improperly. The worst problems are with tranquilizers, sedatives, narcotic analgesics, antidepressants, and stimulants, and most of these are far more powerful when mixed with alcohol. Some have even estimated that more people die from prescription drugs than from all illegal substances combined.

Obesity

Diet and food preparation can play a major role in the risk factors for cancer. Many foods are thought to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing), especially meats that are charcoal-broiled, baked, broiled, or pan-fried. The experts say that the least dangerous way to prepare meats is by microwaving, and the next best is boiling.

Peroxidized fats and oils are considered dangerous in several different ways. They are thought to be carcinogenic, atherogenic (atherosclerosis-causing), thrombogenic (causing undesirable blood clots), immune suppressive (inhibiting the body's immunity from cancer cells, atherosclerotic plaques, bacteria, and viruses, and making them more likely to attack the body instead of the disease), and cross-linkers (causing hardening of the arteries and loss of tissue elasticity. Particularly dangerous peroxidized fats and oils include animal fats and oils, non-polyunsaturated vegetable cooking oils, leftovers contain fats or oils, ground meats such as hamburger, hot dogs, and sausages, excess fat, and smoke from burning fat. Beef has become infamous for its cholesterol, pork for trichonosis, eggs for cholesterol, and chicken for various ailments.

Some of the foods that are considered to be helpful in combating cancer include Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, dill, and celery. Also, Vitamin C is sometimes used to treat cancer patients.

One of the major causes of premature deaths in the U. S. is obesity. The primary reason that most Americans are overweight is due to their habitual practice of overeating. In addition, children are more likely to become obese if their parents are obese. Obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and Type II diabetes. Obese people can experience changes in their metabolism whereby they actually need fewer calories, so they sometimes cannot decrease their weight even when they decrease calorie intake. So, when one's metabolism adjusts to obesity, it may be even more difficult to lose weight. Unfortunately, Americans are addicted to food.

One of the most serious problems confronting smokers who are able to quit smoking is that of weight gain. It may not be a very good bargain to quit smoking in exchange for becoming obese.

Conclusions

I would contend that obesity, smoking, and alcohol easily account for almost all premature deaths in the united states today; i.e., up to one million premature deaths. In comparison, consider that 364,000 Americans died in the Civil War; 116,000 Americans died in World War I; 405,000 Americans died in World War II; 54,000 Americans died in the Korean War; and, 57,000 Americans died in the Viet Nam War. My thesis then is that more Americans die every year because of over-eating, smoking, and misuse of alcohol, than died in all of these wars. Furthermore, more Americans die every year because of over-eating, than died in World War II

It is amazing how many people contribute to their own premature deaths through the preventable causes of obesity, smoking, and drinking. These statistics are certainly true among my own family members and friends who have died prematurely. I have never known anyone who died of a non-accidental, premature death, who neither smoked or drank or wasn't obese. In fact, only one in my acquaintance was not obese, and this was due to his alcoholism.

Of every 100 people who die this year, 7 of them will die from their drinking, 18 from their smoking, and 40 from their obesity. That leaves 35 that died for other reasons. The average American has a possibility of 1 in 123 that he will die in the coming year. The average obese person may have a 1 in 73 chance, the smoker has a 1 in 114 chance, and the drinker has a 1 in 100 chance, as opposed to the non-obese, non-smoker, non-drinker who may have only a 1 in 205 chance of death in the coming year. On the contrary, the obese person who smokes and drinks may increase his chances to 1 in 43.

Consider another indication that these estimates are somewhat credible. How many older obese men do you know? That is, how many men do you know who are over seventy years old who are obese? I do not know any. All of the men I know over seventy are trim. The reason is that older men have either watched their weight or paid for their obesity with their life.

Eating is a passion with us, as well as a social activity. Often we contribute to the obesity of others by coaxing them to overeat. Even though our intentions are good, in that we want to be pleasing and satisfy the desire to overeat, we are really being damaging in encouraging others to overeat. This is especially true during holidays when wives and mothers work hard to prepare high-sugar and high-fat delicacies, and we are afraid of hurting their feelings by not over-indulging. The question is, should we hurt their feelings or our own health?

We realize that the liberties taken with this last set of statistics are less than scientific. For one thing, the sample size of our personal experiences are too small. Secondly, many of the statistics used from professional sources actually conflict with each other. Yet, I believe that the evidence still shows that our major health hazards, ranked in the order of the most dangerous are: 1) Obesity; 2) Smoking; and, 3) Alcohol.

Owen Weber 2009