One of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century was the rapid increase in life expectancy thanks to improvements in vaccination and sanitation strategies that dramatically reduced deaths from acute, transmissible disease.

A pioneer in the systematic accumulation of the data necessary to track these changes accurately was a gentleman named James F. Fries, a practicing rheumatologist who spent his entire teaching career at Stanford University.

While Mr. Fries died recently, his revolutionary work in the development of datasets – a common tool in medical research – lives on. His interest in medical datasets led him to notice something very important.

As recently reported in The New York Times:

“Dr. Fries noticed something strange in the numbers. While the average life span of patients didn’t change much depending on their lifestyle, the rates of morbidity – that is, affliction by chronic disease and disability – varied greatly between those who exercised and ate a healthy diet and those who smoked, overate and exercised infrequently.”

Dr. Fries Reached the Following Conclusions:

  1. Exercise and a healthy diet don’t help you live longer
  2. However, they can help you postpone the onset of debilitating disease
  3. Dr. Fries named this phenomenon “compression of morbidity

“Compression of morbidity” might sound like a highfalutin’ piece of medical mumbo-jumbo, but it suggests several serious, actionable conclusions.

According to The New York Times story, Dr. Fries outlined his compression-of-morbidity hypothesis in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine back in 1980. This in turn led him to practice what he preached:

  • He took up jogging, running an average of 500 miles a year
  • An avid outdoorsman, he climbed the highest peaks on six continents

Dr. Fries was exceptional because his ideas challenged the then widely held medical belief that chronic disease was here to stay, and that lifestyle choices had little or no impact on its inevitability.

Final Analysis

Dr. Fries conceded that, as The New York Times story concluded, “staving off morbidity was ultimately a personal choice, and that those who failed to follow his advice would have to live with the results.”

He was reported as believing: “Anguish arising from the inescapability of personal choice and the inability to avoid personal consequences may become a problem for many. For others, exhilaration may come from recognizing that the goal of a vigorous long life may be an attainable one.”

As we at Everything Retirement have been advocating for years, the maintenance of good health is ultimately tied to living a healthy lifestyle that includes sound nutrition, regular exercise, minimizing the consumption of alcohol, and not smoking. There may be no guarantee to good health as we age, but you can certainly stack the odds in your favour—so why not?