There is a comedy sketch, This is Your Brain After Thirty, from the group It’s a Southern Thing. It is a parody of a pharmaceutical commercial. And the target audience is Millennials who are now feeling the evidence of growing older. The voiceover begins, “Are you in your 30s? You may not feel old. But you don’t exactly feel young, either.” Then it presents three characters with their symptoms:
- Person 1: “Sometimes I walk into a room and completely forget what I walked in there for.”
- Person 2: “I can’t remember my own phone number. And I’ve had the same number for ten years.”
- Person 3: “I know I had supper last night. I clearly don’t skip meals. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what I ate.”
The voiceover continues with the official diagnosis. “Then you might be suffering from Thirties Brain.” There is nothing quite as comforting as having a label. That explains everything. That’s just what happens when one reaches old age in one’s thirties. Yeah, that’s completely normal. Don’t worry, though. “It’s not your fault,” reassures the voice of authority. More info is then offered about it:
“It’s a common condition that affects millions of people. People who are old enough to take their 401(k) seriously, but not quite old enough to enjoy eating at Golden Corral. It’s not your fault. Your brain is too full of useless knowledge, now. Why remember your own phone number, when you could retain every word of the 2001 hit “Drops of Jupiter” by Train? Thirties Brain can make even the most simple conversations feel exhausting. But as soon as it feels like you can think clearly again, your brain stops working again. If this sounds like you or someone you love, then ask your doctor about our new twice-a day…”
Of course, this is just comedy, but it’s funny for the very reason so many can relate to the experience. In becoming part of popular culture, it’s being normalized. That is rather sad when one thinks about it. Should we really be normalizing early onset neurocognitive decline? What they are now jokingly calling “Thirties Brain”, would not long ago have been called “Fifties Brain” or “Sixties Brain”. Indeed many serious health conditions like Alzheimer’s used to be entirely identified with old age and now are increasingly being diagnosed among the young (when we were kids, Alzheimer’s would sometimes be called Old Timer’s disease). The same is true of type II diabetes, which originally was called adult onset diabetes because adulthood was typically the age of diagnosis. These conditions are part of metabolic syndrome or metabolic dysfunction that involves insulin resistance as a key component.
Also common in metabolic syndrome is obesity. It instantly stood out that each actor in the parody commercial were all quite overweight to the point of being obese. Yet obesity also has been normalized, particularly in the South where it’s rampant. Obesity involves inflammation throughout the body, as inflammation is also seen in the brain with Alzheimer’s (along with depression, etc); and inflammation is related to autoimmune disorders, from multiple sclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis. Body fat is an organ, like the liver, spleen, or thyroid. And, in particular, body fat is key to the functioning of the hormone system. Hormones like insulin don’t only regulate appetite and glucose but also a number of other interlinked systems in the body. That is why metabolic syndrome can manifest as numerous health conditions and diseases. And that is why metabolic syndrome is the main comorbidity of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
If you’re experiencing “Thirties Brain”, you should take that as a serious symptom to be worried about. It’s an early sign of health decline that is only going to get worse, unless you change your diet and lifestyle. People typically have metabolic syndrome years or even decades before finally being diagnosed with a disease that doctors recognize, something like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. But it can often be easily reversed, particularly if caught early. Unfortunately, few Americans realize that this is a public health crisis and one that is entirely preventable. Many experts have predicted that healthcare costs are going to continue to skyrocket, as it eats up more of the national GDP and causes widespread medical debt.
This could end up an existential crisis for our society. That is what happened during the World War II draft. The United States Military suddenly realized so many young men were severely malnourished: “40 percent of the raw recruits drafted by our military proved to be so malnourished that they could not pass a physical and were declared unfit for duty” (Stephen Yafa, Grain of Truth, p. 17; quoted in Malnourished Americans). After the war, there was a public campaign with nutritional fortification of food and meal programs in schools, along with official dietary recommendations. It was also a time when obesity was finally seen as a public health crisis (Nicolas Rasmussen, Fat in the Fifties: America’s First Obesity Crisis).
At present, the military is once again acknowledging that this is a serious problem (Obese Military?). By law, the U.S. military is required to serve food that conforms to the U.S. dietary guidelines. Yet, despite military personnel having high levels of exercise, obesity is also increasing in the military. As research has shown, even when caloric intake and exercise is controlled for, the standard American diet (SAD) is obesogenic (Americans Fatter at Same Level of Food Intake and Exercise). But, on a positive note, the military is beginning to recognize the cause of the problem. They’ve determined the link the diet soldiers are being given. And research on soldiers has shown a ketogenic diet will help with fat loss.
The U.S. military is forced to be so honest because it’s simply not an option to have obese soldiers, much less soldiers experiencing neurocognitive decline. It’s only a question when other institutions of authority will catch up. There are signs that changes are already in the air (Slow, Quiet, and Reluctant Changes to Official Dietary Guidelines; & American Diabetes Association Changes Its Tune). After decades of blaming saturated fat, it’s becoming clear that the real culprit is carbohydrates and industrial seed oils; although other factors are involved in the general health crisis, such as possibly hormone mimics that are stunting male development (Real Issues Behind Regressive Identity Politics), but that is diverging from the immediate topic at hand.
The fact is the consumption of saturated fat has declined ever since, back in the 1930s, industrial seed oils replaced animal fats as the main source of fatty acids in the American diet. Likewise, beef intake has dropped about as low as it was in the first half of the 20th century, after a brief period of peaking out in the 1970s (Diet and Health, from John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future). Meanwhile, what has risen in the American diet, besides industrial seed oils, are mostly plant foods: vegetables, fruits, fruit juices, soda pop, grains, rice, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The only animal foods that have seen a significant increase are fish and chicken, the two supposedly healthy meats. That is the modern SAD diet that has led to the sudden appearance of “Thirties Brain”. Welcome to the new normal!
To make a related point, this health decline can’t be blamed on a factor like behavior, no matter how much lifestyle is implicated as well — you can’t outrun a bad diet, as some say. The young generations have become quite health-conscious, but it’s simply the health advice they’ve been given is wrong. Young adults are eating more supposedly healthy foods than did people in the past, including with rising rates of plant-based diets: Mediterranean, vegetarianism, veganism, etc. Also, when younger, Millennials (and Generation Z) had lower rates of teen sexual activity, alcohol consumption, and drug use. As observed elsewhere, one could call them prudes (Rate of Young Sluts) or at least that used to be true. But something has definitely changed that is now affecting their behavior.
After living through a major recession and a global pandemic, we are now seeing a rise of behavioral health issues among younger Americans with rising rates of self-medication, specifically alcohol and tobacco (Blue Cross Blue Shield Association study finds nearly one-third of millennials are affected by behavioral health conditions, Independence Blue Cross). Still, the rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption is now approximately the same as it was in the early 1900s, which was rather low compared to the later spike in the second half of the 20th century (graph from The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General; & Mona Chalabi, Dear Mona Followup: Where Do People Drink The Most Beer, Wine And Spirits?).
Some countries that with more alcohol and tobacco usage than the US are, nonetheless, healthier (France, Germany, etc). Limiting ourselves to the US, consider the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania in their having been studied from 1954 to 1961. At the time, they were the healthiest population in the country, despite being quite fond of drinking and smoking, not to mention their love of processed meat and saturated fat like lard (Blue Zones Dietary Myth). So, a recent slight shift of drinking and smoking among Millennials also ends up being a non-explanation. It’s more likely a result of declining health than a cause, and hence the reason to describe it as self-medication. Or, more generally, the addictive mindset isn’t limited to addictive substances; and, besides, drug use is nothing new (The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity).
Anyway, keep in mind that these Millennial rates of substance abuse are still lower than was seen, for example, among Generation X that had far fewer health problems at the same age, even with GenXers being the most lead poisoned living generation. Something unique is going on right at present and it’s hard to explain it with anything other than a ultra-processed diet high in carbs and industrial seed oils. Back when the first wave of GenXers hit their thirties in the mid-1990s, no one was talking about “Thirties Brain”. And neither did it come up with the prior generations. We are complaining about U.S. presidents of the Silent Generation (Donald Trump and Joe Biden) in their seventies who have obvious neurocognitive decline, but that is a vast difference from one’s thirties.
To put that in further comparison, there was a discussion of health in terms of running. It was part of an argument that humans evolved for running. This is supported by the fact that persistence hunting (i.e., running game down) is one of the oldest and most widespread hunting techniques, as it requires almost no technology other than something to club or stab the animal to death after it collapses from heat exhaustion. The human body seems extremely well-adapted to long-distance running, especially in heat; and this also seems closely linked to the predilection for ketosis (Human Adaptability and Health). What is relevant for our discussion here is that hunter-gatherers reach their peak aerobic health in their fifties. The average middle-aged hunter-gatherer can outrun the average eighteen year old hunter-gatherer. Up into old age, hunter-gatherers can keep up a fast pace with others who are much younger.
Think about how many middle-aged or older Americans who could do the same. Unsurprisingly, hunter-gatherers likewise have very little of the diseases of civilization. Obesity, of course, is almost unheard of among them. The have what is called a long healthspan where most people live healthily into old age and suddenly die without any lingering sickness or long periods of degeneration. In such a healthy society, they likely wouldn’t even understand the concept of “Thirties Brain”.
* * *
Some might think Millennials are being unfairly criticized. That is not the intention. This health decline hardly began in recent decades. Weston A. Price and others were talking about it in the early 1900s. There was even a growing debate about it in the century before that, Heck, all the way back in the 1700s, people were recommending specific medical diets for obesity and diabetes, as it was already being observed that they were becoming more common. The only difference is that we are finally hitting a point of extreme consequences, as diseases of old age are now prevalent among the young, sometimes in early childhood.
We write posts like this with genuine concern and compassion. We are not disinterested observers, much less see ourselves as standing above these problems with condescension. It’s all rather personal. Though relatively healthy in many ways, we have experienced serious neurocognitive and mental health issues since our own childhood. And we suspect we previously were suffering from metabolic syndrome, if not yet diagnosed with any particular disease. To be specific about the point made in the parody video, we have experienced our own equivalent of “Thirties Brain”, as we had a memory-related learning disability that was diagnosed in third grade. For our entire lives, we’ve struggled with memory recall.
So, personal concern is underlying our public worries; magnified by the fact that our nieces and nephew span across the generations of Millennials and GenZ, allowing us to observe firsthand the health issues involved. From our own experience, we know what it’s like to be addicted to carbs and to suffer the consequences. We know what it’s like to struggle with serious mental illness, specifically depression with suicidal ideation, since young adulthood. It saddens us immensely to think that large numbers of Millennials will begin having so many harsh problems this early in life. That is a plain shitty situation, and Millennials did nothing to deserve it. Like the rest of us, they were simply born into this society with its food system and dietary recommendations.
For the most part, the majority of Millennials and other Americans have basically been doing what they were told is healthy. They don’t realize that what has been normalized should not be taken as normal because very few of them have anything to compare against. It’s not like most of us have ever lived among hunter-gatherers to realize how far human health has fallen. Even the traditional rural diet and lifestyle has mostly slipped from living memory. Certainly, hunting and fishing have become uncommon. Getting ultra-processed food from a grocery store or restaurant is simply what people do now.
* * *
Millennials less heart-healthy than Gen Xers at the same age
by Anicka Slachta
Millennials on Track to be Most Obese Generation in History
by Cathy Cassata
Diabetes’ Impact Is Rising Fastest Among Millennials
by Laura Entis
Millennials may need to worry about autoimmune disease, right away
by Swedish Blogger
For millennials, cancers fueled by obesity are on rise, study says
by Sandee LaMotte
“On the basis of evidence now accumulating, vegetables and fruits were not always an integral part of the European diet. Prior to 1800, vegetables and fruits were not esteemed but rather looked down upon. It has only been over the past two centuries that these two critical foods have come into vogue. First, they had to be accepted by a growing number of medical men and observers. Then, once licensed as edible foods, vegetables and fruits, starting with the potato, actually did make their way into every man’s diet. And by the end of the nineteenth century, these rich sources of carotene and Vitamins A, C and E became so universal that Europeans now forgot that a hundred years earlier these foods had barely been consumed.”
What happens when you take public health advice to heart?
by Lena Zegher
What fruits and vegetables looked like before
by Andreas Eenfeldt
Banana – before and after
Carrot – before and after
Watermelon – before and after