A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Time Traveling To Other Health Worlds

Good Living Involves Healthcare & Socializing

by Jennifer Brizzi

My recent trip to Scotland and Turkey felt a bit like time travel, the former to the future, the latter to the past. Although my journey was to research seafood for food and travel articles, as a writer on health topics I found it interesting to explore both countries’ health attitudes as they compared to ours in the US.

To me it seemed that the United Kingdom (which comprises Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) is ahead of us in technology. Besides being a much older society than ours is, advances in transportation, commerce and yes, health care, made it feel at times like my $99 Norwegian Air flight had time-machined me into the future.

One of the first things I noticed, in restaurants and shops, is that they are just as vegan and gluten free-mad as we are, with vegan and vegetarian options everywhere, despite a traditional diet that is heavy on the animal fats. Perhaps the gluten free fringe is not as prominent, and if the country is indeed ahead of us, maybe our own obsession with gluten free eating is on the wane.

In some ways the Scots seemed less savvy diet-wise than we are. Packaged snacks were so cloyingly sweet and buttery I couldn’t eat them. Although sometimes you can find healthy porridge, my lodging breakfasts were laden with sausages and bacon. I do appreciate the good traditional fry-up now and then, but it’s not a meal for every day. Likely if I had stayed with a family, like I did later in Istanbul, my morning fare would have been healthier.  

A Scottish news article from March 24 would not be breaking news here; it stated (NEWS FLASH!) that too much screen time is unhealthy. It cited “new research” from the University of Glasgow that studied 390,089 participants and found that the more sedentary we are, the higher our risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality. Now we could have told them that!

A November 2017 article by one Kevan Christie chided the author’s fellow Scots for the country’s having the highest level of alcohol consumption in the UK, with 24 alcohol-related deaths a week. In 2012 Scotland passed a law on minimum unit pricing, to discourage people with low incomes from buying cheap, high potency alcohol. For example, the price of a three-liter bottle of 7.5 percent ABV white cider would rise from $5 to $15, putting it out of reach of many. The law was since stalled by the Scotch Whisky Association in a series of appeals, but they lost their final appeal in November, and as of May 1st, the law is in effect.

Christie expressed hope by noting that millennials seemed to be shunning the heavy drinking behavior as they embrace a clean-living, healthy lifestyle.”

The World Health Organization ranked 190 countries on their health systems and the UK came in at #18 (the USA was #37). Unlike here, in Scotland everyone receives free health care from the government-run National Health Service, although there is also a private sector paid by insurance or individuals — 8.5 percent of the population uses this system. Sixty-one percent of Scots are satisfied with the public health system, though, many more than in England with their NHS. In Scotland mortality rates from serious illnesses are decreasing.

Turkey’s WHO ranking is only #70, but like Scotland they apparently have a successful public free health care system, with a fairly high satisfaction rate, especially in the larger cities of the western part of the country.  Those who can afford it sometimes choose private health services for perceived better quality of care and shorter wait times. The number of people doing this has lately increased and caused a subsequent improvement in the quality of the public system.

My visit to Istanbul was only a few days and I stayed with my pen pal of 40 years, Sebo, and his wife and 26-year-old daughter in their urban apartment. In ways this experience felt like time travel in the opposite direction, to the past. Although everyone had cell phones and there was a giant flat screen TV, I felt like the hospitality of the family, the friendliness of the other people I met, and the rich, timeless culture were all classic, as if they had been the same for hundreds of years.

The time with Sebo and his family provided a more intimate snapshot of the Turkish lifestyle and health. Now in his late 50s, Sebo has had two heart attacks and takes eight medicines with every meal, But he expressed to me his pride in his country’s free health care and how it has helped him.  

I think his lifestyle helps keep him going too. He is super sociable; even in a city neighborhood he seems to know everyone. He is always on the move, retired but very active, climbing and descending the uneven steps of his family’s fifth floor walkup several times a day, and strolling around the neighborhood socializing. He has a car, but he does not use it much.

Sebo spends a couple hours at night watching TV with his wife, and yes, he is on Facebook and is plugged in like the rest of us. But he’s not glued to his cell phone — it is a tool, not an addiction. His days are active, his diet wholesome and high in high-antioxidant tea. He is close to and connected with his three adult children, his brother, his friends.

Sebo’s lifestyle seems a healthy one. I keep thinking that his American counterpart might eat lots more processed, preservative-laden foods and be mostly sedentary, with less social interaction’ such a man might not have survived my Turkish friend’s heart attacks.

While I did not get to know many people in my short time there and didn’t understand enough of the language to analyze the nation’s outlook on healthy living via signs and advertisements, the meals I enjoyed were all light, varied (and delicious), based on lean proteins, yogurt and plenty of fruits and vegetables. If Sebo is a product of his culture, then it is a healthful one.

In spite of Turkey’s troubles, with too many lives lost to terrorism and government coups — which surely adds stress to people’s lives — from what I observed its people are coping in the way they always have. Which works.