Humanity crossed a line in 2009: For the first time in history, more people in the last decade died from non-communicable disease than from all the plagues in the world combined. We’ve entered what science pundit Steve Jones has, in a rather macabre but perceptive manner, dubbed the Age of Decay.
First was the Age of Disaster — 95 percent of human history — when people died from starvation, accidents, violence and cold temperatures. Around 12,000 years ago, we learned to “circle the wagons,” if you will, as a species. As we became agrarian, we moved closer together to store food. A natural byproduct of this was the Age of Disease, when plagues decimated populations. We’re now in the Age of Decay, when the big killers are non-communicable diseases — cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Pulmonary disease is fourth.
The longer that I have labored in my line of work, the more I realize it is the height of hubris as a clinician to think that I can “fix” anyone. Rather, I think the best thing I can do is help folks move through the world a little bit better. Our goal in this age as clinicians, scientists, policymakers, is to think not about fixing everything but rather to delay decay.
We all rightly take cancer and heart attacks seriously. Diabetes, however, has not risen to that level. If one were an evil deity and wanted to sock it to humanity, one wouldn’t pick something like cancer or a heart attack. Those are often far too dramatic. One would rather choose diabetes: It is silent, sinister and it happens in the background. No one sees it coming. How, then, does diabetes cause amputations?