“Worse than smoking”

Have you noticed the growing list of things that are worse for us than smoking?

Some make intuitive sense, like obesity.  That’s been linked to “a big increase in chronic health conditions and significantly higher health expenditures [than smoking, heavy drinking, or poverty].”

Drinking excessive amounts of soda might also be worse for you than smoking — but that claim is more of a doctor’s thought exercise than a real scientific study.

Is eating eggs worse than smoking?  That one’s a headline-grabber but based on shaky science: a study that showed correlation, not causation, between egg consumption and subjects’ levels of carotid plaque, and didn’t control for the rest of their diets or how much they exercised.

So participants might have had plaque around their heart because they ate eggs — or because they also ate fast food every day and never exercised, for example.

I’m not obese, don’t drink much soda, and am not too worried about the egg thing.  But I was gutted by three relatively new “worse-than-smoking” claims that cut straight to the heart of our western culture of individualism and overwork.

It turns out sitting all day, job burnout, and loneliness may all be worse for us than smoking.

Today Gawker reported the story of a 24-year-old Ogilvy & Mather employee who dropped dead suddenly of a massive heart attack in the ad agency’s Beijing offices after working extremely long hours for an entire month.

In March, an Israeli study found a strong link between levels of job burnout and coronary heart disease.  From MSN Money:

“Those who were identified as being in the top 20% of the burnout scale were found to have a 79% increased risk of coronary disease,” a press release by Tel Aviv University said.

One of the study’s lead researchers, Dr. Sharon Toker, called the findings alarming, adding they were “more extreme than the researchers had expected — and make burnout a stronger predictor of CHD than many other classical risk factors, including smoking, blood lipid levels and physical activity.”

Toker also warned that job burnout can create a downward health spiral and develop into a chronic condition.

“Sitting is killing you”

A few months ago, the scary infographic Sitting is Killing You made the social media rounds, leading to an upsurge of standing desk sales (including my own) among panicked office-dwellers.

It turns out the 9+ hrs a day most of us spend sitting at desks and on couches is making us fat, ill, and groggy, with every seated hour reducing our life expectancy, you guessed it, more than smoking does.  And going to the gym at the end of a day of sitting only lessens, but doesn’t undo the damage.

Lethal Loneliness

And this week comes a wrenching report from the New Republic Magazine: The Lethality of Loneliness: we now know how it can ravage our body and brain 

Loneliness, it turns out, “not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.” From the NR:

A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

This is not a small problem.  According to the New Republic, as many as 30% of Americans “don’t feel close to people at a given time,”, and more than one out of three adults 45 and over “reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time).”

Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t, even when they don’t fall into the categories above. Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.

A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part.

If these studies are true, the implications are brutal: basically, our culture is killing us. 

It’s impossible to check your income out on the Global Rich List and see how absurdly wealthy most of us are compared to the rest of the world, and not wonder: am I as healthy and happy as this incredible (and incredibly unfair) opportunity allows me to be?

We need to spend less time staring at screens, and more time connecting with and being kind to one another.  Preferably out of doors.

In that spirit, I’m going to head outside for a walk with a friend.  And maybe a smoke.

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