On the face of it, our life expectancy in Bermuda is looking good. Women on the island now reach an average age of 86, up from 78 in 1990, while men generally live until they’re 78, up from 69.
That’s marginally better than the global average and feels like good news considering we’ve seemed to spend the past few years fighting one health crisis or another.
But, as is often the case with statistics, it doesn’t tell the full story.
According to Dr Sabrina Famous, just because we’re living longer, it doesn’t mean we’re happy and healthy in our latter years. “We are living with more intervention, and we are getting really good at prolonging life, but not necessarily improving the quality of life,” said Dr Famous, a physician at Ocean Rock Wellness on Point Finger Road, Paget.
“You are 80 but are you going out much? You can live long, and you can be 100, but if you are 80 with physical decline you will have 20 years without a full quality of life. The idea is not only to have longevity but to have vitality as well.”
The secret to living a long, happy life is typically simple: make healthy choices from a young age, get good sleep and keep stress to a minimum.
Diseases of the circulatory system, such as heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, are responsible for more than one-third of Bermuda’s early deaths, making them the top killer on the island. Smoking and a diet of foods high in sugar, fat and animal proteins are well-known key contributors to high blood pressure, but stress is increasingly regarded as a threat.
Previous generations also experienced stress, but Dr Famous said our bodies are more primed to recognise it. “Stress causes inflammatory molecules in the body,” she said. “Stress is meant to be a reaction in our body, a fight or flight response – that’s how we evolved. It helped us run away from a lion and go and hide in a cave.
“Now, we get stressed when we aren’t making time at work or have deadlines to meet or we’re late. We are not going back to our cave to rest and digest. We just carry straight on with our next stressful task. We’re not functioning in the way we were meant to.”
Ocean Rock Wellness focuses on a holistic and root-cause approach to health by encouraging better habits and examining issues such as environmental exposures and stress. Beth Hollis, a physiotherapist at Ocean Rock Wellness, helps people get into that “rest and digest” state.
“A lot of patients dealing with chronic pain are not getting better because they’re not getting rest and digest,” she said. “Stress contributes to every chronic medical condition you have.”
Patients with anxiety can focus on breathing techniques.
“It’s about getting them into a healing state,” Ms Hollis said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you need to be in that healing state to gain traction on your health.”
Diabetes, which can cause heart and kidney failure, is another scourge in Bermuda, partly as a result of our high rate of obesity. Local men are twice as likely to die from it than those in other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Dr Ayesha Peets Talbot, medical director at Ocean Rock Wellness, noted people are becoming obese at young ages.
“The adults are now more obese, which means the kids are more obese,” she said. “Now, there’s a sense of normalcy that my kid looks like me. I had a four-year-old come in here. Her mom was concerned about her skin rash, but she was obviously obese too. I asked if she had got any other concerns and she didn’t. I had to explain the health risks to her.”
Dr Peets Talbot noted Bermuda’s culture has always celebrated with food and alcohol. But she continued: “We have got fatter. We don’t move as much. We always used to walk from place to place, wherever we needed to go. We were probably more active in our jobs as well.”
Sarah Wight, a nutritional therapist at Ocean Rock Wellness, said: “When I talk to new clients, I find out their eating is not supportive of their health goals and they are deficient in many nutrients. The way we eat, and for those with unhealthy diets, it may be due to finances, time, family pressures and other life stressors.”
Ms Wight warned it’s not easy for those who have not been educated on whole foods or without guidance from family and mentors. “Economics come into play, as someone with more leisure money does have the resources to change their diet and lifestyle overnight, although it doesn’t mean they will,” she said.
“On the flip side, there is a bigger barrier for someone who does not have the finances to buy organic food and higher quality whole foods. They may work two jobs, and don’t have the time or bandwidth to grasp new concepts and form new habits.”
Other diseases that threaten our life expectancy are lung cancer, which is linked to toxins, asbestos and smoking; and colorectal cancer, which is related to carcinogens found in barbecued food. Between them, they account for more than a quarter of cancer deaths in Bermuda. Prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women are also both prominent killers which are best prevented by regular check-ups with a doctor.
The tendency, of course, is not to worry about our life expectancy when we’re young.
Ms Hollis said: “People get comfortable being uncomfortable in their bodies. People just get into their own way, falling into these habits. We have noticed it’s a certain age, particularly close to retirement age, when people are ready to receive advice and take responsibility for their health.
“When people are ready to invest in longevity, that’s when the magic starts to happen! They make healthier choices and become more active. They invest in themselves.”