Epidemiology: past, present and future.
Sommaire de l'article
Verh K Acad Geneeskd Belg.
Epidemiology in the past was concerned essentially by the study of infectious diseases which were the cause of huge mortalities especially since urbanisation was initiated. Epidemics of pest, typhus, cholera, influenza a.o. were common. The epidemics were halted by better hygiene, vaccination and antibiotics. Since the second world war epidemiology was dominated by an « epidemic » of new chronic diseases, especially heart disease and cancer. This was due to an increase in life span and to an increase in smoking habits and in the intake of saturated fat and a too small intake of fruit and vegetables combined with a too high intake of salt (NaCl). Gradually epidemiology evolved as the study of the causes, the distribution, the risk factors and the prevention of chronic diseases, but also including accidents, suicide, depression a.o., diseases with a mass occurrence at the population level. The importance of nutrition as a determinant of health gradually became recognized, but remains undervalued by the medical profession. Mortality at the population level follows some simple mathematical laws and can be represented accurately (r2>0.99) between the ages of 35 and 84 year by either Gompertz equations (ln mortality versus age) or by a polynomial equation (ln mortality versus age, age2). This is valid for all populations and both sexes and remains valid at times of great and rapid changes in mortality. This shows that measures for prevention should be directed towards the total population. The future of epidemiology should be directed towards the slowing of the ageing process at the population level by a healthy life style consisting of: not smoking, avoiding obesity, a fair amount of physical activity and a healthy nutrition i.e little salt, little saturated fat, an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids and a large amount of fruit and vegetables, with an occasional glass of red wine. This contains the secret of a long and healthy life. Conceptually it will be important to determine whether a maximum human life span, genetically determined, exists. A maximal rectangularization of the mortality curve should then be the ultimate goal. At the same time the possible re-emergence of old and new infectious diseases (SARS, Ebola, BSE, AIDS) should be kept in mind.