May is “Mental Health Awareness Month.” It is also “National High Blood Pressure Month.” and this column is about physical health. I’ve noticed that the older you get, the more you think about that subject.
When I was young, my father often said, “It’s no fun to be sick.” He knew first hand, suffering for many years with heart disease and high blood pressure.
Back then, meaning the 1950s, doctors didn’t have the knowledge or techniques now available. My father tried everything to lower his blood pressure, including several months on a “rice diet” at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. We flew down there in 1948, my first airplane trip.
As it happens, monthly awareness covers a lot of subjects, and May is also “National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.” I suspect a more rigorous exercise program would have helped my father more than eating rice.
The ‘50s and ‘60s were not a healthy time in America. I’m embarrassed to admit that back then, like most Claremont teenagers, I smoked. I gave that habit up in my 30s, one of my life’s signal accomplishments.
Our parents, it seems, made “health mistakes,” not just for themselves but for others as well. It was only good manners to have cigarettes in the living room for guests, and in our living room there was always an ample supply sitting right next to the Stephen Foster “Songbook.” You could light up and sing “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” at the same time.
Heart disease reached its peak in 1968, striking down a lot of people in what we would now call middle-age. A cholesterol level of 240 milligrams per deciliter (one tenth of a liter) was considered “normal.” Today anything above 190 is too high, and smoking by adults has dropped by more than half. In other words, there’s been a lot of progress, thanks to public health efforts and healthier lifestyles.
Still, we have a long way to go, and naming months won’t solve our national health problems, nor the cost of health care. Maybe we should take a lesson from the Tsimane, an indigenous people in Bolivia whom I never heard of until a recent health article in the New York Times. They are hunter-gatherers who mostly manage to avoid heart disease without taking expensive medication or undergoing heart surgery. They are physically active, don’t smoke, and avoid foods containing refined starches and sugars and meat high in saturated fat.
Looking ahead, June is a mixed bag. It’s National Candy Month (I wonder whose idea that was), but it is also Great Outdoors Month. I should probably mention that it is also “Father’s Day” month, whereas this month is for mothers. In other words, I’m a month too early with this column, a calendrical oversight I will try to rectify by writing something about mothers next month.
Then comes July, which is National Ice Cream Month. Now that’s something to look forward to.
My father loved ice cream.