Friday, July 4, 2008

Cancer Among the Inuit

I remember coming across a table in the book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy (by Dr. Walter Willett-- you can skip it) a few years back. Included were data taken from Dr. Ancel Keys' "Seven Countries Study". It showed the cancer rates for three industrialized nations: the US, Greece and Japan. Although specific cancers differed, the overall rate was remarkably similar for all three: about 90 cancers per 100,000 people per year. Life expectancy was also similar, with Greece leading the pack by 4 years (the data are from the 60s).

The conclusion I drew at the time was that lifestyle did not affect the likelihood of developing cancer. It was easy to see from the same table that heart disease was largely preventable, since the US had a rate of 189 per 100,000 per year, compared to Japan's 34. Especially since I also knew that Japanese-Americans who eat an American diet get heart disease just like European-Americans.

I fell prey to the same logic that is so pervasive today: the idea that you will eventually die of cancer if no other disease gets you first. It's easy to believe, since the epidemiology seems to tell us that lifestyle doesn't affect overall cancer rates very much. There's only one little glitch... those epidemiological studies compare the sick to the sicker.

Here's the critical fact that modern medicine seems to have forgotten: hunter-gatherers and numerous non-industrial populations throughout the world have vanishingly small cancer rates. This fact was widely accepted in the 19th century and the early 20th, but has somehow managed to fade into obscurity. I know it sounds unbelievable, but allow me to explain.

I recently read Cancer, Disease of Civilization by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (thanks Peter). It really opened my eyes. Stefansson was an anthropologist and arctic explorer who participated in the search for cancer among the Canadian and Alaskan Inuit. Traditionally, most Inuit groups were strictly carnivorous, eating a diet of raw and cooked meat and fish almost exclusively. Their calories came primarily from fat, roughly 80%. They alternated between seasons of low and high physical activity, and typically enjoyed an abundant food supply.

Field physicians in the arctic noted that the Inuit were a remarkably healthy people. While they suffered from a tragic susceptibility to European communicable diseases, they did not develop the chronic diseases we now view as part of being human: tooth decay, overweight, heart attacks, appendicitis, constipation, diabetes and cancer. When word reached American and European physicians that the Inuit did not develop cancer, a number of them decided to mount an active search for it. This search began in the 1850s and tapered off in the 1920s, as traditionally-living Inuit became difficult to find.

One of these physicians was captain George B. Leavitt. He actively searched for cancer among the traditionally-living Inuit from 1885 to 1907. Along with his staff, he performed 50,000 examinations a year for the first 15 years, and 25,000 a year thereafter. He did not find a single case of cancer. At the same time, he was regularly diagnosing cancers among the crews of whaling ships and other Westernized populations. It's important to note two relevant facts about Inuit culture: first, their habit of going shirtless indoors. This would make visual inspection for external cancers very easy. Second, the Inuit generally had great faith in Western doctors and would consult them even for minor problems. Therefore, doctors in the arctic had ample opportunity to inspect them for cancer.

A study was published in 1934 by F.S. Fellows in the U.S Treasury's Public Health Reports entitled "Mortality in the Native Races of the Territory of Alaska, With Special Reference to Tuberculosis". It contained a table of cancer mortality deaths for several Alaskan regions, all of them Westernized to some degree. However, some were more Westernized than others. In descending order of Westernization, the percent of deaths from cancer were as follows:


Keep in mind that all four of the Inuit populations in this table were somewhat Westernized. It's clear that cancer incidence tracks well with Westernization. By "Westernization", what I mean mostly is the adoption of European food habits, including wheat flour, sugar, canned goods and vegetable oil. Later, most groups also adopted Western-style houses, which incidentally were not at all suited to their harsh climate.

In the next post, I'll address the classic counter-argument that hunter-gatherers were free of cancer because they didn't live long enough to develop it.

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