Old Age and Obesity

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I n Classical Greek medicine, the elderly have, by definition, a cold and dry temperament; they were seen as melancholic and are thus in need of therapy. Youth has a sanguine complexion, as Shakespeare's Falstaff fantasizes himself as a healthy, middle-aged man: "A goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent, of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage" (Henry IV, Part I, Act II, Scene 4, lines 422-4). What is "happy corpulence" in youth is inherently different from "melancholic obesity" in old age (Steadman 1957). Old fat is a sign of disease. La Fontaine observes that what one wishes to achieve in life is "embonpoint raisonnable," not obese girth (La Fontaine 1883-92: V, 587, and I, 86).

In a 1636 translation of the Jesuit theologian Leonard Lessius's (1554-1623) autobiography is a classic account of how health flows through life, "for one kinde of proportion belongs to Youth, when it is in its flower; another to Consistencie; a third to Old Age" (Lessius

1636: 16). Lessius noted that as a young man one can eat more extensively, but old age marks the decline of such excess. One should not eat more that one can in order that one is not "made unfit for the duties and offices belonging to the Minde" (Lessius 1636: 30). A "Sober diet doth by little and little diminish this abundance of humours, and abates this ill moisture, and reduceth them to their due proportions" (Lessius 1636: 34). Central to Lessius and his Jacobean translator is the avoidance of those foods that cause illness in the elderly, which "breed cataracts, clouds, dizzinesses, distillations and coughs; and in the stomack breed crudities, inflations, gripings, gnawings, frettings, and the like . . ." (Lessius 1636: 60). One must avoid these or one has no "plainer proof of his thraledom to gluttonie, than when he thus thrusts and poures in that which he knows is hurtfull unto him, onely to content his licorish appetite" (Lessius 1636: 60-61).

Such a sober diet is necessary, for it "drives away Wrath and Melancholie, and breaks the furie of Lust; in a word, replenisheth both soul and bodie with exceeding good things; so that it may well be termed the mother of Health" (Lessius 1636: 202). Everard Maynwaringe noted later in the century that such indulgence does not solely impair the individual but also the entire future of the state. He writes, we and our posterity shall degenerate yet still into a worse and sooner fading state of life. For, as the principles of our Nature are more infirm, tainted, and debauched from our parents and Progenitors, than those of former Ages, of more vigour, soundness and integrity; are likewise more propense, and liable worse to be depraved and degenerate, and consequently of shorter duration and continuance.

(Maynwaringe 1670: 4)

"[I]ndulging Venus too much, by immoderate and too frequent acts, thereby enervating all the faculties, dispiriting and wasting the body: by wearing and fretting the mind with various passions" (Maynwaringe 1670: 6). This statement suggests that lust was just as dangerous as gluttony. The result is "the Body which was fat, or plump and fleshy; afterwards grows lean and thin; or if lean and spare bodies grow big and corpulent; here is just cause of suspi-tion, that all is not right" (Maynwaringe 1670: 41). Fat bodies have their own problems and they reflect the image of acedia or sloth: "Avoid day sleeps as a bad custom; [undertaken by] chiefly fat and corpulent bodies" (Maynwaringe 1670: 92). Later in the text, the soul itself is perceived as fat when the body is in distress: "The Soul is languishing, heavy and inactive, altogether indisposed to the government and tuition of the body; and perhaps desirous to be discharged and shake it off, being weary of the burthen; taking no delighted in their partnership and society, as in melancholy despair and grief" (Mayn-waringe 1670: 133).

In the nineteenth century, the noted physiologist Angelo Mosso argued that older people were at risk from various pathologies if they overindulged in any area (Toye 1983: 234). Brain fatigue was the great villain of creativity, especially in the aged. Mosso, who had studied in Leipzig and later with Claude Bernard, was at the time the Professor of Physiology at Turin and a noted exponent of a materialist reading of creativity. He strongly believed that "psychic functions are . . . intim ately united with the phenomena of nutrition and reproduction ..." (Mosso 1906: 60). Since "mental phenomena are a function of the brain," exhaustion of the brain could be the result of inappropriate intellectual over-exertion (Mosso 1906: 62). Mosso cites Charles Darwin who claimed that he found in himself "excessive intellectual work was apt to produce vertigo ..." (Mosso 1906: 225). Mosso, therefore, stressed that all creativity should be limited to specific periods during the day. Goethe, he notes, worked in the morning, Rousseau at night. However, in general the best work is done during limited periods of time in the morning.

Central to Mosso's presentation of the creative process is that it too is a form of work and, as such, can be debilitating, especially to those with pre-existing nervous weakness as well as the aged. He quotes the noted Dutch physiologist Jacob Moleschott (1822-93) that "in artists and scientists the material change promoted by their intellectual exertions is again moderated by their sedentary life. And it is a well-known fact that artists and scientists, in spite of their sedentary life, rarely suffer of fat" (Mosso 1906: 225). Moleschott, in his 1852 book The Circuit of Life, likewise noted his belief in the material basis of emotion and thought. For him, healthy artists are thin artists, as their body reflects the very work of creativity. Artists may have increased rates of urination, Moleschott claims, but this is simply a sign of the work that can in some result in intellectual fatigue. The relationship between stress and blood pressure is a relationship central to his understanding of the perils of aging. Thus, all old, creative men would be advised that they would live longer and more productively if they worked only two hours a day. Diet too is central to the preservation of life and the essence of creativity. All excess is to be avoided.

With the 1998 World Health Organization's report on the new classifications for defining obesity, much more concern has been given to old age. The statistical basis for this concern rests on the Metropolitan Life mortality tables, which ceased in 1983. Recently (1997-2000) there has been a wide range of studies that argue that obesity is the cause of a range of diseases and disabilities of aging. The Italian Longitudinal Study of Aging (1997) showed that the greater the weight in a population aged sixty-five to eighty-four, the greater the mortality. Indeed, there was a 6 percent decrease in mortality for men and a 3 percent decrease for women for every BMI unit less that people weighed. Interestingly enough, a number of these studies have been sponsored by the Seventh-Day

Adventist medical organizations, which have consistently argued for diet reform since the creation of the Church

(Andres 2002).

See also Dublin; Greek Medicine and Dieting; White

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