New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”
The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.
The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.
Apparently, the root causes are still unknown in their particulars. The article centers around a particular hypothesis that much of this is a function of fetal and infant health:
“Why do some people get heart disease and strokes and others don’t?” he said. “It’s very clear that current ideas about adult lifestyles go only a small way toward explaining this. You can say that it’s genes if you want to cease thinking about it. Or you can say, When do people become vulnerable during development? Once you have that thought, it opens up a whole new world.”
It is a world that obsesses Dr. Barker. Animal studies and data that he and others have been gathering have convinced him that health in middle age can be determined in fetal life and in the first two years after birth.
Read the whole thing.
Update: Hawks thought it was pretty good, too.