Rome, USA

By Michael Applebaum, MD, JD, FCLM


Q:        What caused the fall of the Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world has ever known?


A:         Their diet, according to many modern scholars.


It is hard to believe that food and drink can destroy an empire, but apparently that is the case.


In ancient Rome lead was utilized in the making of water pipes, cooking utensils, water tanks and storage vessels.  Lead was used as a preservative and flavor enhancer.  Wine was cheap in ancient Rome and was contaminated with lead from as many as 14 sources during its preparation.  The Roman aristocrats, chased platters of lead-seasoned food with gallons of lead-containing wine.


The lead adulterated food and wine undoubtedly resulted in epidemics of gout, sterility and stillbirths.


Most alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that became characteristic of the Roman elite.  Chronic lead poisoning persistently destroyed the aristocracy and created a scarcity of good management.  If there is one thing an empire needs to sustain itself, it is lucid and competent management.


The Romans knew that lead could cause serious health problems, madness and death. However, they were so fond of it that they downplayed its hazards.


Can it happen here?  Can we eat ourselves into incompetence?  A couple of recent studies seem to say so.


The first, from Harvardís Kennedy School of Government, revealed that even though "obesity" is a source of more deaths than AIDS in the United States, "obesity" ranks far behind AIDS, cancer, heart disease and diabetes as a "very serious" concern among most Americans and despite more than half of the survey respondents were "overweight," less than one in four saw his/her own body weight as a "serious" or "very serious" personal health concern.  It further documented that 65% of respondents blamed "obesity" on their own weakness of will and inability to maintain a regular diet and exercise regimen, i.e., most people admitted that they were so fond of food that they downplayed its hazards.


The second, reported in the February, 2003, International Journal of Obesity stated that the list of risk factors that contribute to cognitive deficit should now include "obesity."


In other words, "obesity" makes you stupid.


This research used data gathered for 1,423 people in the Framingham Heart Study, the nationís most enduring epidemiological investigation.  This is the first report to demonstrate that long-term, early-onset "obesity" is an independent risk factor to cognitive dysfunction.


Measures for cognitive functioning included those for executive functioning, which measures planning and organizational ability, and abstract reasoning.  The study indicated that fatty diets and associated weight gain may damage blood vessels that supply the brain and up to half of "obese" American men may have less cognitive power than their non-"overweight" counterparts.  Interestingly, no similar association between "obesity" and intelligence was uncovered for women.  This may be explained by the fact that men and women distribute stored fat differently in their bodies.


Although it may be possible that being fat does not make women stupid, it does not mean that being a fat woman is smart.


The Romans neglected their well-being through unhealthy eating and paid the price.  We are pursuing a similar course.


America, currently the greatest nation on earth, is getting fatter sooner.  "Obesity" among children has about doubled to nearly 15%.  The CDC estimates that 1 out of three children will develop Type II diabetes (a consequence of "obesity").  If early onset "obesity" is a factor in cognitive dysfunction, you canít begin onsetting any earlier than childhood.


Overeating and inactivity are killing us, our children and our resources.  Instead of awakening the Kevorkian within, we should choose life for ourselves and our kids -- before we become too stupid to know better.