Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tessa Pollard's "Western Diseases"

Tessa M. Pollard is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and member of The Wolfson Research Institute at Durham University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Western Diseases: An Evolutionary Perspective, and reported the following:
As a group, western diseases - such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, allergies and mental health problems - constitute one of the major problems facing humans at the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly as they extend into the poorer countries of the world. My aim in this book is to show how the use of an evolutionary perspective can enhance our understanding of these diseases.

For example, the rise in the prevalence of allergies in the affluent west has been linked by biomedical scientists to a lack of exposure to infection in childhood. Research on the evolution of disease in human populations points to the presence of intestinal worms throughout human (and primate) history. As a result of following this lead, scientists have shown that the absence of exposure to worms may be key in explaining the increase in allergic disease in populations living in affluent and hygienic conditions.

Page 99 is the first page of Chapter 6, in which I focus on three aspects of female reproductive life: reproductive function and infertility; the consequences of a lack of breastfeeding for mothers and children; and the menopause. On p99 I start to examine the links between obesity and high testosterone levels in women - women with high testosterone levels may have difficulty conceiving. Obesity is a central concern of the book and in an early chapter I show why humans evolved to be particularly good at laying down fat tissue, and how changes in our diets and activity levels have brought about the current obesity ‘epidemic’. Impaired reproductive function in women is an example of one of the lesser known effects of obesity.

In some cases these evolutionary insights can lead us to possible preventive strategies, some of which coincide with established public health wisdom, such as increasing levels of physical activity and of breastfeeding, and some of which are less mainstream, such as manipulating reproductive hormone levels in young women to reduce breast cancer risks.
Read an excerpt from Western Diseases, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue