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Health, psychology & science stories


Dead health gurus

10 April 2000

Published in the Byron Shire Echo

It might be wise to kick off this column on health with a cautionary tale.

Dr Paavo Airola was once the best-known health expert in the United States. His books were international best-sellers. In 1983 Dr Airola  offered to publish a health book I had written in the US. We corresponded to this end for some time.

But then he stopped writing. Weeks went by, then months. Eventually I assumed Dr Airola had got cold feet.

Little did I realise how cold. Ultimately a letter arrived from his office.

America's most acclaimed longevity specialist - author of How To Get Well and How to Keep Slim, Healthy and Young With Juice Fasting  - had died of a stroke at 64. This was more than a decade short of 74.5, the average age of male mortality in the US.

Paavo Airola had opened the batting for an epidemic of premature death among longevity experts.

Next cab off the rank, in 1985, was Nathan Pritikin - who suicided as leukemia overtook him, at 69. Australian health writer Ross Horne, a friend of Pritikin's, says he would have lived years longer had he only embraced "Man's natural diet", fruitarianism.

TC Fry - leader of the Natural Hygiene movement in the US - did exactly this, when ill-health hit him in his late sixties. He even died a fruitarian: at the age of 70, of a pulmonary embolism.

Longevity experts seem to expire earlier than everyone except rock stars - who leave us, according to a recent US survey, on average at 36.9 years.

But rock stars can have dangerous lifestyles. (Of the 317 surveyed, 40 died of drug overdose, 36 suicided, 22 died in plane accidents, and 18 were murdered.) Longevity experts should have no such excuse.

So how to explain this epidemic? Was exercise the missing ingredient? Probably not: most of these people at least walked a lot. Paavo Airola was a jogger.

So, too, was Jim Fixx. Indeed Fixx founded the jogging cult in the USA, with his 1977 Complete Book of Running . One chapter is a scorching repudiation of a Playboy article titled Jogging Can Kill.

In 1984 Jim Fixx was felled by a heart attack as he jogged through the streets near his home. He was 52.

The author JI Rodale - founder of Prevention magazine - had a more comprehensive answer to the problem of heart disease and other illnesses. He preached a spectrum  of minerals and vitamins, and an organic diet. I asked American raw food writer Bob Avery how Rodale's story ended:

"He died of a heart attack during taping of the Dick Cavett TV talk show, shortly after he had completed his interview. He was 72. During the interview he stated his intention to live to 100. The talk show host thought he had dozed off in his chair."

George Ohsawa, inventor of Macrobiotics ("the way of long life") had a more comprehensive approach still: embodying spiritual as well as nutritional values. He expired of lung cancer at 73.

Adelle Davis sold ten million copies of Let's Eat Right and a string of other best-sellers through the 1960s and 1970s. Davis came from the "high protein" generation which preceded today's high carbohydrate orthodoxy. She used to say she had never seen anyone die of cancer who drank a quart of milk a day, as she did.
Adelle Davis died of cancer in 1974, aged 70. The average age of female mortality in the US is 81.

A serious  high protein aficionado was author Vilhjalmur Stephansson, who ate an all-meat diet. He developed severe cardiovascular disease. Britain's Sir Francis Chichester, lone sailor and fitness book author, died of spinal cancer aged 70. American health author Dr Stuart Berger, who advocated vitamins, minerals and exercise, diedof a heart attack at 40.

A few longevity experts do  live long lives - but most don’t even make the average for their gender, let alone the ton. And most made large amounts of money from telling us  how to prolong our lives.

So what killed them? Perhaps the high-carbohydrate diet helped despatch some. (As we shall see next week, this orthodoxy is now coming into question.) Others, like Paavo Airola, had health traumas early in life. But that's no excuse for the overall trend: the Standard American Diet-eaters whose deaths make up the averages were exposed to a comparable range of stresses.

And there were, of course, those who just did not follow their own rules.

I asked veteran American health writer Ric Lambart about Adelle Davis:

"She simply led a very self-destructive life. She did some of the very same things she urged others not to do: smoke and drink... In fact, when I first met her, it was Paavo who introduced us, and he had to locate her in a busy hotel - so he went right to the bar, where she was engaged nurturing a drink that was clearly not some sort of fruit drink."

Lambart also had something to say about that least considered factor contributing to early death: chronic stress. Herbert Shelton - the founder of the Natural Hygiene movement in the US - was perennially hounded by the medical establishment. Shelton

"never got out from behind the eight ball, stress-wise... He was constantly overworked and engaged in extreme legal warfare. The medical establishment over here did all they could at every turn to put him out of business and in prison."
But there was also, Lambart added, the fact that Shelton "apparently did not consume a natural diet himself".

Ric Lambart also knew TC Fry:

"Terry Fry...was under unrelenting stress and never got out of one legal battle or confrontation before he was engaged in a new one. He spread much good information, though, so should be considered as one of those who contributed some good gospel to the Alternative Health field. He burned his candle at both ends, so, almost predictably, passed away prematurely."

Most of the above pundits condemned "crackpot" and "fad" diets (diets other than their own). To be fair, some undoubtedly contributed a piece or two to the slow-forming jigsaw of health. (Even getting people to think  about nutrition in the 1950s and 1960s was an achievement.)

Collectively, however, their premature exits cast a humbling shadow over our present certainties. Are dietary principles as transient as those of, say, political correctness?

Perhaps these mournful departures should make us more modest in our assessment of our own understanding. And less fevered in our judgement of those who differ from us.

In the coming weeks we'll look at a range of exciting new ideas in health. Hopefully they will give you some "eureka moments", as they did me.

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