By Jacqueline Vincent, Health Columnist
Despite the many ways it finds to stand up to abuses, the human body is a fragile thing. Oncogenes activate and turn off our cells’ ability to die, leading to cancer; blood vessels burst or slow to a trickle in heart disease; our life-support system begins to deteriorate and ends in chronic respiratory disease. These causes of death don’t only arrive because of natural risk factors: often, our lifelong habits begin to catch up to us.
Emma Norton, 20, is a student at Dalhousie and King’s College, and she takes these possibilities to heart. “Everyone knows someone who’s had cancer,” she explains. “You definitely want to be more careful because you see the amount of people who are affected by it.” Her mother underwent treatment for breast cancer while Emma was finishing elementary school. Since then, Emma has deliberately followed a healthier diet and avoided risky plastics and chemical-laden products.
Fellow student Carmen Warner was similarly affected by her participation in the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life: “I am so much more aware of how I treat my body, the things I put into it, and the environment I live in. I avoid second hand smoke at all costs and will forever attempt to make the people I care about quit their bad habits.”
But their choices are not the norm. Many students continue to drink, smoke and deep fry themselves into oblivion, rather than paying attention to the things that could raise their risks decades down the road.
Perhaps it is a sense of inapplicability: cancer and cardiovascular disease are things that hit our middle-aged neighbours, not us. Maybe it’s that good old feeling of invincibility, the one that makes reams of us sit outside our classes chain-smoking, joking about how the sauce has cut our life expectancy in half. With so many immediate things to worry about, from breakups to midterms, who would want to cultivate a sense of impending doom? We are young and upwardly mobile. We don’t want to think about what may come along later.
But it’s not just our own inertia that prevents us from paying attention. Our health seems to be the object of equal-opportunity neglect.
University health and services make a valiant effort to give students the preventative health care they need. But look further—flip through the Chronicle-Herald, the Globe and Mail, or the daily Metro—and it’s clear that health-related media outside the academic bubble is focused on an aging audience. Coverage abounds on osteoporosis fractures, the latest cancer drugs, and preventing diabetes, but few (if any) pieces are directly targeted at anyone under 40.
Parents are exhorted to slather their toddlers with sunscreen and strap helmets on their six-year-olds while they themselves pop omega-3s by the bucketful, but those aged 15 to 25are treated with laxity. We’re going to abuse our bodies until our thirties anyway, goes the logic. Society can wait to reach the sensible adults that come out on the other side.
This attitude is dangerous and unfair. We may be busy, ensconced in a bubble of college life. But above all, the human is a creature of habit, and the habits that last for ages are the ones that we are forming now. Carmen points this out to me with a wisdom that shouldn’t be—and really isn’t—beyond her years: we are “incredibly fortunate to be healthy,” she says. “We only get one body, so you better treat it right.”
Such thoughts should not dissuade us from living full lives and taking the kinds of risks we need to grow: they should simply be taken to heart. We joke about how we won’t live past 40 amidst all our chain-smoking, pizza-fueled alcoholism, but it would be tragic indeed if that turned out to be true.