Despite the significant amount of research that continues to be conducted on common diseases, experts are still relatively uncertain about their causes. One reason for this uncertainty is the fact that both genetic and environmental factors are involved, and the range of contributing possibilities in each disease category is enormous.
Surprisingly though, there are some places in the world where common diseases actually rarely occur. Below are 9 places where the prevalence of certain common American diseases is extremely low. While experts have speculated on why this is so, let’s just say the jury is still out, although there are some theories, and maybe also some principles to live by that we can all adopt from these countries.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men around the world. While the disease affects 227.1 per 100,000 men living in France (Martinique), males in China fare exceptionally better: 1.7 per 100,000. The death rate from prostate cancer also is exceedingly low in China: 1.0 per 100,000, followed by Japan at 5.7. Reasons for these low rates include a diet rich in Omega 3’s, genetics, limited meat in the standard diet, high green tea consumption, limited processed foods, low sugar consumption, and smaller portions at meals. Japan also has significantly lower rates of prostate cancer than Western countries for similar reasons. Another reason may also be the low screening in these countries, as rates of prostate cancer incidence are higher in countries with advanced and entrenched screening methods.
By the way, in the USA the rate is about 220 per 100,000 but for African American men it’s over 300 per 100,000 (the highest incidence on a race adjusted basis).
Compared with elderly whites living in the United States, their counterparts in Beijing have an 80 to 90 percent lower prevalence of hip osteoarthritis. In a study appearing in Arthritis and Rheumatism, the authors reported that among adults age 60 and older, hip osteoarthritis was found in 0.9 percent of women and 1.1 percent of men in Beijing. In a later study, the prevalence of hip osteoarthritis collectively among whites and blacks in the United States was reported to be 29.5 percent among women and 25.4 percent among men aged 45 or older. That’s a huge difference, and is most likely related to the lower rates of obesity and weight related joint disease in China compared to America. That’s sure to change in the years going forward as Western diets and the fast food culture expands in Asian countries and obesity rates increase.
High cholesterol is an important risk factor for the number one killer in the United States: heart disease. The percentage of US adults with high cholesterol is 12.9 percent and those with high bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) is 31 to 32 percent. Yet among the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region, high cholesterol and heart disease are nearly nonexistent. This benefit is likely associated with their diet, which is extremely low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and consists mainly of native foods, such as whole corn, beans, pinole, tortillas, cumin, and squash.
A study by Australia’s University of Queensland on the topic of clinical depression around the world yielded some, well, depressing findings. Depression is the second main cause of disability around the world. If you live in Afghanistan, more than 20 percent of people suffer from this mental health condition, while less than 2.5 percent are affected in Japan. Some suggested reasons for this wide disparity is that areas with high depression rates are engaged in conflict and/or have to deal with epidemics while places like Japan are economically well off and have better established healthcare systems. My take is a little different. I think the low rates in Japan may be more a result of men not actually reporting their depression, given Japanese male cultural and other influences. It’s probably higher than the “official” statistics report.
While more than 5 percent of adults older than 65 are affected by Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, an area in rural northern India has a rate of only 1 percent. It is possible that this extremely low percentage is the product of poor diagnostic methods or genetics. Other explanations come from Dr. Andrew Weil, who has suggested the liberal use of turmeric in the diet may have a role; and Dr. Michael McGregor, who notes that the diet of this population is high in carbohydrates, grains, healthy fats, beans and low in meat.
This African country can boast a cancer (all types) rate of 63.4 per 100,000. Why this country (and those that follow closely behind it) have this distinction is not fully understood. However, generally, studies show that the lower a country’s Gross Domestic Product, the lower the risk of developing any type of cancer. Poverty and hardship, in the same vein, is also associated with both lower cancer rates and extended life expectancy as was shown in the 2 World Wars, when both the standard life expectancy rates went up and chronic disease levels (including cancer) fell. On the flip side, rich nations have the highest rates of all major chronic disease.
Granted, 63.4 cases per 100,000 in Niger may not qualify as rare in everyone’s mind, but when you compare that cancer rate with those in Denmark (338.1, the highest in the world) and the United States (318.0), the difference is significant.
This category is a little different: death before age 100. On the Italian island of Sardinia the approximately 1.6 million inhabitants have the world’s highest documented percentage of people who have lived longer than 100 years. The secret is likely a combination of diet (they eat mostly fruits and vegetables, olive oil, garlic, fresh dairy, and tiny amounts of meat only once or twice a week), lifestyle (people typically work into their 90s), and genetics. In fact, a research team discovered a gene in the Y chromosome that can significantly reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack in men in Sardinia.
The lowest rate of death from Parkinson’s disease can be found in Egypt (which ties with Thailand) at 0.12 per 100,000 population. Coming in at third and fourth from the bottom are Georgia and Singapore at 0.16, while the top four countries are Finland, Iceland, Senegal, and the United States at 4.66, 4.56, 4.55, and 4.51 per 100,000, respectively. It’s not clear what these two very different lists tell us about the disparity between death rates for Parkinson’s, although one significant risk factor for the disease appears to be exposure to pesticides and chemicals used in metal processing, which corresponds to the prevalence of these contaminants in parts of the United States where the disease is most common.
Generally, the populations living in Muslim nations rarely get skin cancer because of three factors: they have higher pigmentation, they mostly wear traditional clothing that shields them from the sun, and they don’t engage in sunbathing. Therefore, heavily Muslim countries with high sunlight exposure such as Maldives, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Somalia have very few case of skin cancer.
We’re not saying move to Bangladesh and start eating turmeric all day. But there are some simple takeaways. Obviously maintaining a healthy weight will help prevent joint disease and adopting better eating habits can help ward off some of the most common Western illnesses. Eating smaller portions of food has benefits for both life extension and cancer prevention as has been shown from the studies on Intermittent Fasting. Incorporating healthy fats, like avocados and coconut oils, in to your diet can help with Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain disorders. And as the Sardinians do; live in balance and just keep moving and having a sense of purpose and community. One of the common drivers of disease is excess. Excess stress, which increases cortisol and reduces our immune system – and excess of food; particularly highly processed, sugar laden Western food in portions that drive obesity and all the associated ailments. Diet seems a common theme in most of the countries listed above so that’s the best, and most simple place to start if you want to adopt a better and healthier lifestyle.
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