Playing the Odds I

Playing The Odds at Every Turn – Part I

Last summer, I had a “spirited” conversation with friends over dinner about health which led to some research on my part, and a revelation about the remarkable similarities to “financial health.”

The debate with our friends essentially boiled down to the leading causes of death and the role that luck and genetics play vs. the choices we make.

It all started when our friend said, “All your exercise and attention to healthy eating is great, but there’s no guarantee you won’t still drop dead of a heart attack.  My father and grandfather both died of a heart attack before they were 62.”

I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this comment before.  Ultimately, it’s the same as, “you can do everything right and still get hit by a bus!”  Or, “I know a guy who was healthy who collapsed and died while running.”

All of that may very well be true, but it certainly doesn’t change the facts about the overwhelming leading causes of death, and what those are predominantly attributable to.   

Let’s look at some updated statistics I pulled from The World Health Organization website www.who.int about the leading causes of death (the italicizing and bolding is mine for emphasis).

World Health Organization

Non-communicable diseases (NCD) were responsible for 71% of all deaths globally in 2016, up from 68% in 2012 and 60% in 2000.

What’s even more telling is that NCDs account for 88% of deaths in upper and middle-income countries like the United States.  That’s remarkable!

Of the top 10 causes of death in upper and middle-income countries, only two are not NCDs: lower respiratory infections and road injuries which are numbers 6 and 8. 

The 4 main Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic lung diseases, and diabetes.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claimed 3.0 million lives in 2016, while lung cancer (along with trachea and bronchus cancers) caused 1.7 million deaths. Diabetes killed 1.6 million people in 2016, up from less than 1 million in 2000.

Deaths due to dementias more than doubled between 2000 and 2016, making it the 5th leading cause of global deaths in 2016 compared to 14th in 2000.

  1. Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs)

CVDs are the number one cause of death globally: More people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause.

An estimated 17.7 million people died from CVDs in 2015, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, an estimated 7.4 million were due to coronary heart disease and 6.7 million were due to stroke.

Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioral risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol using population-wide strategies.

  1. Cancer

Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, with 8.8 million cancer related deaths in 2015.  Nearly one in six deaths is due to cancer.

Around one third of cancer deaths are due to the 5 leading behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use.

Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer causing around 22% of global cancer deaths.

  1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

It is estimated that 3 million deaths were caused by COPD in 2016, which is equal to 5% of all deaths globally that year, and 90% of those deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries.

The primary cause of COPD is exposure to tobacco smoke (through tobacco use or second-hand smoke).

Many cases of COPD are preventable by avoidance or early cessation of smoking.

  1. Diabetes

The number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014!

In 2015, an estimated 1.6 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes comprises 90% of people with diabetes around the world and is largely the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity.

Healthy diet, regular physical activity, maintaining a normal body weight and avoiding tobacco use can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.

What’s the Commonality?

As you read through all of this, do you notice any commonalities?

First, more than two thirds of all deaths (and 88% of deaths in upper income countries like the U.S.) are related to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), i.e. not an epidemic and not an accident.

Among the four leading NCDs, the startling commonality is that they are not random, and not genetic.  They’re primarily brought on by lifestyle choices and the physical effects these choices have on our body:

  • Eating: what do we eat, when do we eat, and how much do we eat?
  • Drinking: how much alcohol do we consume? How much water do we consume?
  • Smoking
  • Exercise: how often, and what type
  • Stress
  • Sleep: how much do you get, and what’s the quality of your sleep?

There’s No Guarantee

Armed with these statistics from the WHO, let’s now go back to my dinner conversation with our friend and her comment: “All your exercise and attention to healthy eating is great, but there’s no guarantee you won’t still drop dead of a heart attack.  My father and grandfather both died of a heart attack before they were 62.”

I again sympathize with the loss of her father and grandfather because I lost my mother to cancer at age 57, but the fact that they both died of a heart attack before age 62 doesn’t necessarily suggest that it was genetic.  What are the chances that their lifestyle choices, and the negative long-term effects they had on their bodies, were similar?

More important, however, was our friend’s choice of the word “guarantee.”  It’s a very, very important word and one that led to my “revelation” about financial health.

Everyone desires certainty in their lives.  Most would prefer guarantees with everything (health, finances, etc.)

Unfortunately for the majority who seek it, life is not a straight line.  There are virtually no guaranteed results in anything.

Given this, to achieve whatever it is that you want, use your freedom to choose. 

Research and Play the Odds at Every Turn!

In health, it’s 100% true that you could get hit by a bus and die.  It’s also true that genetics plays a role in your longevity.

However, as The World Health Organization statistics suggest, the tremendous news is your lifestyle choices have a far, far greater impact on your health, vitality, and ultimately, your longevity. 

If you have a sincere desire to be healthy and live a long life, why would you not study how to eat better, drink much more water and less alcohol, stop smoking cigarettes, and exercise rigorously on a daily basis.

Those like our friend who choose to focus on the role that genetics or accidents play in our long-term health, etc. prefer believing it’s out of their control because it absolves them of any responsibility or role in the outcome.  After all, “there’s no guarantee.”

What they’re really saying is they prefer not to make the proper choices and just do whatever feels good in the moment without any regard to the long-term ramifications.

It’s easier to say it’s out of our control, it’s random, or it’s predetermined. 

However, that’s a rejection of the reality that we all have the freedom to make the choice to play the odds at every turn and reap the rewards the statistics demonstrate.

Stay tuned for the next issue as I reveal my revelation, i.e. the amazing analogy to financial health!

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