Fifty years ago after I’d been married only 3-months, my father died of his first and complete surprise heart attack at 48 years of age. He’d just passed a physical exam not 2-weeks earlier. Dad had smoked 2-packs of Camels a day for years. The link between tobacco and chronic diseases might have been suspected then, but no lawsuits were pending. Up until 3-years earlier, he’d walked at least 7-miles every workday servicing his vending machines at the mills and Winthrop College campus in Rock Hill, SC. After that business folded, he shifted to sedentary employment – selling cars, radio repair, and then insurance sales. Physical exercise wasn’t much in vogue, then. He continued to eat and live as he’d done for 15-years and gained at least 15-pounds – probably over 20 – over the next-three years until his surprise day of reckoning.
I assumed after my father’s untimely death that I’d not make 60. My body build was similar to his though I was still thin then – about 145 pounds on 5-foot, 9-inch frame.
He died in October 1962 – peak of the Cold War, The Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest we’ve come to nuclear annihilation. Cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease seemed minor threats then. I went on with my life; finished college and grad school; started family and career. For the next 35-years or so, I led a conventional American lifestyle. Much of my early career was demanding. I worked long hours, travelled a lot and my wife was full-time homemaker and mother to our kids. I exercised fairly regularly, but ate the Standard American Diet (SAD) and steadily gained one to two pounds per year so that by 1996, after I turned 55, I reached my all-time fat of about 210 pounds. I, also, picked up “mild” hypertension with blood pressure at about 140/90. Because of my cardiovascular family history, my MD then had me taking both Diovan for blood pressure control and Lipitor for Cholesterol. In that same year, my MD did a routine blood test and brightened my day by informing me that I had Type 2 Diabetes. (My HbA1c registered 8.1 “average” blood glucose over 90-days. “Normal” was then less than 6.0). I had no idea what “Diabetes” was. I did know that my Mother’s older brother, “Doc”, had Diabetes, but that was it. I did a bit of research and what I first learned was scary: “uncontrolled” Diabetes turns the brain and other organs to mush, cuts blood circulation, impairs healing and causes various appendages to rot and fall off – very unappealing prospects. So I went on a binge of running, near fasting, and with help from two more pills – Avandia and Glucophage – managed to cut my HbA1c to under 7.0 – still diabetic, but now “controlled”. I still accepted the FDA endorsed “Food Pyramid – low fat, high carbohydrate, calories in/calories out paradigm that prevailed at the time. I checked my blood sugar near daily with a portable blood glucose monitor and “aggressively controlled” my Diabetes with these 4-pills, “diet” and exercise. My diet control was simply avoiding sugar, which I found would invariably spike my blood sugar readings.
In 2000, I got another unpleasant surprise following a routine physical exam. The routine EKG indicated an abnormality, which was confirmed by a Thallium stress EKG that warranted a heart catheterization exam. I was then 58-years old – getting close to what I’d perceived as all the time I had left. But I loved my life and wasn’t ready to go. My Cardiologist reported a 50% blockage in one of the arteries nourishing my heart. That sounded horrible to me, but he told me not to worry unless it was approaching 90% blockage! I continued with my lifestyle “control” – routinely watching the blood sugar level, taking all those meds – two for blood sugar, Diovan for blood pressure and a statin (still Lipitor, then) for cholesterol.
This went on for another 10-years. I’d stopped porking-up and managed to keep my weight below 200 pounds, HbA1c blood sugar below 7.0 and cholesterol levels OK. I don’t recall any comment from my MD back then about my obesity or any reference to possible link between my excess weight and those chronic diseases – diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Maybe, they said something about it and I chose to not hear. “There is none so blind as those that will not see.”
I’ve read many books and articles about weight control, importance of exercise and linkage of obesity to diabetes and other chronic diseases. This gradually sunk in. I “knew” I needed to cut my weight more and was very suspicious about the efficacy of the all the pills I was taking. Did the pills do more than treat symptoms? Did any actually address the underlying causes? Maybe they did. But I instinctively knew that for me, the excess body weight I was carrying was at the heart of my mix of Western chronic diseases. But, like so many others, I’d made countless resolutions to lose weight, and went on various “diets” but kept on without lasting success.