Chapter 16 – Health 101

Like any other activity, the practice of health involves one or more choices. We choose to live quietly and simply, to exercise in the open air, to keep sensible hours and not overdo physically. We choose to exercise our bodies not in gymnasiums or on golf courses or tennis courts but doing useful outdoor physical work. We choose to live in the country rather than the city, with its polluted air, noise and stress. We prefer clean fresh air, sunshine, clear running water. We choose to cut our own fuel in our own woods rather than pay the oil barons. We design and construct our own buildings. We grow and prepare our own food,rather than shop in the supermarkets.
Helen & Scott Nearing 
Continuing The Good Life

Scott Nearing was 100 when he decided to die.
He split firewood until he was 98.
Helen was more active than most women half her age
until her accidental death in 1995 at age 91.

Nutritious food and positive mindset are arguably the best medicine, but it is clear that the place in which we live affects our physical and psychological health. This chapter provides health information for you to consider as you develop criteria for your ideal place. It will help you to find a place that is conducive to your best health. It will help you to avoid places that are bad for your health. These are different things.

Most rural environments are more healthful places to live than most urban environments. For starters, there is more space between knuckles and noses and the tree-to-auto tailpipe ratio is superior. There are fewer industries per square mile spewing death into water and air; the conversations of urban refugees change from how awful the smog to how pretty the sky. Country folks appear to walk more slowly but apparently take longer strides— they get where they’re going as fast but are less stressed upon arrival. Men who live in rural areas are less likely to develop bladder cancer than urban men. We are told it is because they drink more liquids and urinate more often. Is it ruralites’ greater physical activity? Or is it that urban water tastes so awful, or that urban men suffer from lack of trees, bushes, wide-open spaces? Or is it all of the above?Living in a large city shortens life expectancy.
Norman Shealy, M.D., PhD.,
Shealy Institute for Comprehensive Care and Pain Management
Springfield, Missouri 

Environmental factors contributing to good physical health are clean air, pure water, healthy soil. Health destroyers include water and air poisoned by industrial and vehicular emissions, pesticides, other agricultural residue. Less widespread but potentially worse are retired and active toxic waste dumps which somehow manage to poison nearby residents. Chemical industry defenders deny the connection.

If you have a medical condition that requires treatment, then your criteria for an ideal country home will include ready access to medical staff and facilities. If you are presently healthy and determined to stay that way, then you should locate in an area that contributes to good health. Evidence suggests that the most healthful places are where doctors are scarce.

Better health equals fewer doctors

Most people equate rural health quality with the ratio of doctors per capita. This does not seem to be an accurate guideline, as “counties with the best mortality rates from all diseases have half as many doctors per capita as the national average, and those with the worst mortality have 8 percent more doctors per capita than the country as a whole.” (Benjamin A. Goldman, The Truth About Where You Live.) One must conclude that, rather than diminishing the incidence of disease, doctors locate their practices where demand for treatment exists. It’s just good business—in the biggest business.

Healthcare services

The greatest reductions in mortality during the past two centuries are not due to better medical treatment. The leading killers at the beginning of this century were infectious diseases. These were largely eradicated with environmental improvements: sewage systems, purified public water supplies and better nutrition—long before the discovery of antibiotics and other medical cures.

In certain diseases, medical technology is simply inadequate. Even though billions of dollars and decades of research have been invested, cancer is devastating America. Cancer is expected to surpass heart disease as the number one cause of death in the U.S. by the year 2000 (Patricia Braus, “Why Does Cancer Cluster?,” American Demographics, March 1996). AIDS, with 61,301 new cases and 44,052 deaths in 1994, is another health disaster in search of a solution. For all disease, prevention seems to me easier, more logical, less expensive than cure. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control found that for every dollar a company spends in preventive health care and exercise programs for employees, the company saves seven dollars in future health costs.

Some feel that a health care crisis exists in rural America. According to the American Hospital Association, 280 rural hospitals closed between 1980 and 1990. In 1988 the National Rural Health Association prepared an estimate for Congress that showed 1,280 rural counties were “health-professional-shortage areas,” with fewer than one doctor for every 3,500 residents. The problem is most acute in the South and in sparsely populated western states, but every state has at least two such areas. While the number of physicians in the U.S. has grown from 260,500 in 1960 to 670,300 in 1993, according to the American Medical Association there are 149 counties with no physicians at all. (See map: “Is There a Doctor in the County?”)

There are notable exceptions to the above. Many small towns actively recruit (“seduce” comes to mind) young doctors. Many medical schools encourage physicians to do at least part of their training in rural areas. The National Health Service Corps is a federal agency that offers scholarships and loan repayment plans to medical students who agree to practice in a doctor shortage area (American Demographics, March 1996). Small towns typically give new doctors grand treatment. One example in the AD article ended: “There’s something to be said for the life here. The board passed an official resolution asking them (a husband-and-wife team) to stay. They really are heroes in this town. A lot of doctors don’t get to feel that way anymore.” Another plus is that the government has raised Medicare rates and will now pay rural hospitals equally with city hospitals.

Some doctors are joining the city-to-country movement. In The New Heartland John Herbers notes that the 97-bed Baxter Hospital in Mountain Home, Arkansas, has a number of specialists who followed retirees to the area, often taking cuts in pay because they like the lifestyle of the region. (1996 update: there are now 197 beds, 67 physicians; facilities include cancer treatment center.)

The latest in rural health care is tele-medicine. Doctors use interactive video to “see” patients in distant clinics. Doctors feel that diagnosis is just as accurate and patient monitoring is better than in person because both doctor and patient can see each other more often.

If easily accessed health care is one of your criteria, you should make a special investigative effort to satisfy yourself. After you choose an area of interest, when you write to chambers of commerce for general area information, request a report on health care availability.

On the subject of seducing doctors, an enjoyable movie was Doc Hollywood. Michael J. Fox as Dr. Ben Stone is a newly-minted MD whose cruise toward the medical fast lane takes a small-southern-town detour when he swerves his Porsche to miss cows in the road and wipes out the judge’s new picket fence—while the judge is still painting it. The town woos him with copious home cooking, a guaranteed salary and the mayor’s lusting daughter (well, that was her idea, and she mostly just wanted a ride to Hollywood). I give it two thumbs up for entertainment and a chuckle for reality.

Stress and place

Stress kills enjoyment of life, relationships, people. It promotes heavy drinking and cigarette smoking and causes irritability. It is a prime factor in ulcers, high-blood pressure, heart disease. It leads to alcoholism, drug dependency, divorce and dog-kicking. Get rid of it—the stress, not the dog.

The geography of healthfulness seems to be connected to a lack of stress. Psychology Today ’s study on low-stress “cities” found them all to be small towns. An area of Polish farms in Nebraska is perhaps the most healthful place to live in America. The active stress-free lifestyle is considered the primary reason that residents there, for many decades, have lived longer than people in any other place in America. The area has freezing winters and hot, humid summers. So much for the health benefits of a gentle climate.

Being in the wrong place combined with job pressures can create a lethal amount of stress. When I was a city real estate broker I became close friends with my chiropractor. It was inevitable—I saw him several times a week because of my almost-constant tension headaches. During the years I have both lived in the country and avoided the real estate business I have not once needed a chiropractor. Maybe it’s because Heartwood is in a valley—I look up a lot, which seems to keep my cervical vertebrae happy, which tends to make my head happy. Which makes chiropractors’ accountants unhappy.

Mental health

Those who study cause and effect of social problems suggest that mental illness is higher among those who change their home places often. Such a pattern, it is implied, creates a condition of being in limbo, a feeling of not belonging to a place, a loss of community, unsettledness.

Or is it that those who are unhappy are more prone to move, hoping the new place will magically cure the underlying problem—but do so impulsively and carelessly? The premise of this book is that a move can be a highly positive action—but only when the move is conducted after a thorough examination of self and potential places.

Where death and disease are caused by environmental factors

Benjamin Goldman performed a great public service by compiling The Truth About Where You Live: An atlas for action on toxins and mortality, a book representing the culmination of five years of work at Public Data Access, Inc., in New York. PDA exploited the Freedom of Information Act and used computer processing techniques to evaluate government information and appraise environmental and health conditions. Goldman writes: “Across the United States, an average of four industrial accidents a day spill toxic chemicals into the environment. Factory mishaps release 370 thousand tons of toxins into the air each year. Industrial plants routinely discharge another 7 million tons of toxic chemicals into the air and water, and dump another 500 million tons of hazardous wastes into the ground—in full compliance with existing government regulations. To complete the picture, add another 4 billion tons of wastes that farms and cities discharge annually into the nation’s air, waterways, and land.”

The Truth About Where You Live uses many maps to provide a comprehensive picture of counties that are suffering from disproportionate shares of environmental contamination and death. Deaths from cancer and other diseases follow the nation’s rivers. Runoff from pesticides and other agricultural chemicals and industrial wastes have turned rivers into gutters of chemical soup. The counties bordering the Mississippi River have some of the worst mortality rates in the country. Below the Ohio River, eighty percent of the counties bordering the Mississippi have shamefully high levels of excess death.

Death rates are generally highest in the eastern part of the country. High mortality rates exist in the coastal plain states of the Southeast, including Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, and in western Pennsylvania. As measured in 1992, the nine worst states for death from heart disease are: New York, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Carolina and Ohio. A factor that experts agree on is that blood pressure is significantly higher in the South. They disagree on the why.

In general, avoid areas where corporate farming is conducted—big companies tend to be sensitive to profits and insensitive to human health. They use large amounts of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, many of which become airborne and many of which find their way into groundwater. Studies have shown a high rate of leukemia among Midwest farmers. Farmers who use certain pesticides are at greatest risk of cancer (American Demographics, March 1996). To avoid corporate agriculture, search for a place in areas where soil or topography make large-scale farming impossible.

Avoid petrochemical industrial areas like the plague that they are. Stay far upwind and upriver from nuclear reactors, active and closed military bases, old dumps, landfills, waste incinerators, mining and oil sites (including exploration sites) and industrial facilities.

Goldman’s book, published in 1991, derives primarily from federal data collected in the 1980s. Since then, various acts and laws have been adopted and some Superfund sites have been declared safe for habitation. Be skeptical. Only you can be the final judge of what is a healthful place for you to live. I suggest you use the information from The Truth About Where You Live as a caution and a starting point, then carefully make your own current investigation.

Are there any healthful areas left to live? Yes. They are usually far from industrial and corporate farming areas. For your health and your family’s health, take the time to identify them. Make a thorough investigation of present, past, and planned land uses around your potential home site before you commit to living there.

According to Northwest National Life Insurance Company, the states with the healthiest people are Utah, North Dakota, Idaho, Vermont, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Utah may be rated so high because the predominantly Mormon population eschews smoking and riotous living.

In praise of homegrown foodOne of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a package of garden seeds. 
Dan Bennett 

Supermarket tomatoes are picked green—homegrown tomatoes are picked at their height of sun-ripened goodness. Commercial fruit and vegetable varieties are chosen for fast growth, uniform ripening, transportability, presentation, profit. They are grown using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on soil typically deficient in trace minerals essential for good health. Picked green, gassed, sprayed with wax, handled and bruised by machines and individuals and trucked long distances, most supermarket produce is deficient in vitamins, minerals, taste, satisfaction.

One cannot overestimate the health benefits of food grown from living, organically rich soil, unpoisoned by chemicals, the produce untouched by pesticides. Homegrown varieties may be chosen for vigor, suitability to local conditions and flavor. And the nutritional value of produce minutes-fresh from the garden surpasses anything commercially available to even the wealthiest shopper. Home gardeners eat better than Bill Gates.

High-quality soil is alive with millions of earthworms and microorganisms converting organic matter into plant food. By contrast, most commercially produced food is grown in dead or dying soil devoid of essential minerals. Chromium, essential for converting fat to energy by the mitochondria of our cells, has been mined out of soil by decades of wheat monoculture. The result: nine out of ten Americans are deficient in chromium. The fact that the U.S. ranks second worldwide in per capita pork consumption may also be a clue to our high incidence of obesity.

Doctor’s Data, a Chicago trace-mineral analysis lab, found that organically grown wheat has twice the calcium, five times more magnesium, six times more manganese, and fourteen times more selenium (an antioxidant that prevents cancer) than conventionally grown wheat. Compared to crops grown with pesticides, organically grown crops were found to contain significantly higher levels of 20 of the 22 beneficial trace elements measured in the study (David Steinman, “Internal Affairs,” LA Village View, 10-14-94).

Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are killers of earthworms, microorganisms, humans. The growth of chemical agriculture has been paralleled by the growth of so-called health care (what is practiced should be called disease care) which in 1994 became the biggest business in the country—$700 billion per year. Purposefully applying poisons to our soil and our food crops is the result of ignorance, unconscionable greed and criminal indifference to consumer health.It is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that
the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons. 

Wendell Berry 
The Unsettling of America

We can beat the grim legacy of chemical farming by growing much of our own food and by buying the rest from conscientious growers. Buy property with poison-free soil. Ideal garden soil has not been commercially farmed for decades. If you are unsure of soil quality, ask one of the many organic growers’ associations that certify organic produce for sources where soil may be tested for poisonous residue. If it is free from poisons, you can build a good garden. The key to growing healthful food is building healthful soil. If you can’t or won’t garden, buy organically grown food. Organic food is still more expensive but, without health, what good is money?

Living healthy and living long

If Dr. Roy Walford is correct with the title of his book, The 120-Year Diet, we’re giving up on living more than 40 years too soon. The cover story of Life, October 1992, “Can We Stop Aging?” quoted scientists using the 120-year figure as if it were an accepted fact.

Heart disease and cancer kill 75 percent of us. Information widely available today, read and acted upon, could virtually eliminate these two killers. If we live in a healthful place, engage in healthful work, eat healthful foods, and follow a few commonsense precepts, we can live far longer than insurance companies currently predict.

Health is one of my most rewarding hobbies and about it I am biased. My bias is that most of us can achieve and maintain excellent health without help from doctors. Don’t get me wrong about doctors; I think they are essential assets. I just hate to see them driving better vehicles than teachers, farmers, writers. Seriously, each of us should be in charge of our own health—which means being responsible for our health. The benefits far outweigh the effort required.

As a no-extra-cost bonus in a book that you thought would limit itself to helping you to find the perfect place to park your heart, I offer my personal list for staying healthy and living long.


Don’t you just hate these stupid disclaimers made necessary because of lawsuits? Reminds me of a story: There was a terrible accident at a building site, and a construction worker rushed over to where a well-dressed woman was pinned beneath an iron girder. “Hang in there, lady,” he said helpfully, “the ambulance will be here soon. Are you badly hurt?” “How should I know?” she snapped. “I’m a doctor, not a lawyer.”


  • Move to a rural place that has healthful air, water and soil.
  • Eat a low-fat (20 percent or less) diet with minimal amounts of meat and dairy products but lots of fruit, vegetables and grains. Grow food or buy organic. Eat only foods that are delicious.
  • Use antioxidants—vitamins A (beta carotene), C and E, and selenium. Antioxidants are the best health news in decades—read all about them.
  • Use best-quality vitamin and mineral supplements. Few diets provide optimal nutrient levels. Educate yourself.
  • Exercise (brisk walking qualifies) at least three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes each time. Country living automatically takes care of this. “The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best” (Thomas Jefferson). When you visit the city, laugh at elevators and those who ride them. Have a little fun—ask people waiting for elevators for directions to the stairs. Don’t be surprised if they don’t know where the stairs are. Indulge in activities you enjoy. “A satisfying sex life is the single most effective protection against heart attacks” (Dr. Eugene Scheimann). Erma Bombeck relates to that: “The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.”
  • Don’t smoke. Don’t breathe others’ smoke. “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: don’t smoke, whatever you do, don’t smoke” (Yul Brynner, cancer victim, in a posthumous antismoking commercial).
  • Avoid stress. When people are rude, smile—it’ll totally confuse them. Live below your means. Maintain perspective. “One way to get high blood pressure is to go mountain climbing over molehills” (Earl Wilson).
  • Work hard at something you feel good about.
  • Get adequate rest. Ignore rules dictating how many hours “adequate” is—trust your body’s messages. “The amount of sleep required by the average person is about five minutes more” (Max Kauffmann).
  • Avoid unprotected sun exposure. Use sunscreen. Get a broad-brimmed hat that reminds you of one of your heroes. (According to NASA, in 1992 the ozone layer hole was three times the area of the 48 contiguous states.)
  • Touch. Give and receive hugs and massage.
  • Be happy—live where you prefer, do the work that impassions you, be with one you love. Married people seem to be happiest. “By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher” (Socrates). When you feel unhappy, straighten your back, lift your chin, show your teeth and act happy. Soon you will be.
  • Stay mentally active—forever. Garden. Read. Think. Debate. Write, paint, sculpt, craft. Mow your lawn creatively. Study nature.
  • Laugh a lot—especially at those who disagree with you and at all politicians. “Laughter is inner jogging” (Norman Cousins). “He who laughs, lasts” (Dr. Robert Anthony).
  • Give of yourself to others. “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die” (Eleanor Roosevelt). “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else” (Booker T. Washington). “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late” (Emerson). “Long-range studies imply that doing something with other people, especially something for them, is the most powerful of all stimuli to longevity and health” (Jon Poppy).
  • Install a full-length mirror in your bathroom. Make a list of all of your positive accomplishments. Tape the list to the mirror. If the naked truth in the mirror causes suicidal depression, read the list. Then follow the suggestions in this list.
  • As Peter McWilliams observed: Understand that life is not a struggle—it’s a wiggle
  • Expect to live well past 100 years. Remember Eubie Blake’s words: “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Resources and recommended reading

  • Ford, Norman. The 50 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire in the United States. Bedford, MA: Mills & Sanderson, 1991.
  • Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live: An atlas for action on toxins and mortality. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991.
  • Herbers, John. The New Heartland: America’s Flight Beyond the Suburbs and How It Is Changing Our Future. New York: Time Books, 1986.
  • Setterberg, Fred and Lonny Shavelson. Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1993.

EPA Right-To-Know Hotline: 800-535-0202. An information specialist will direct you to a state agency that can give you information about toxic conditions in specific locations.
The EPA’s Web address is:

If you have trouble finding a source of whole grains, organically grown produce and minimally-processed foods near your place, consider joining or organizing a food co-op. For a free list of co-op stores for any state, send a note and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:
Co-op Directory Services
919 21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404.

Food & Water Incorporated and Environmental Research Foundation note that, “Recently Congress banned the sale of assault rifles. However, it is still perfectly legal to kill someone with a zucchini.” For information on the pesticide problem and their grassroots campaign, call: 800-EAT-SAFE.

To lengthen thy Life, lessen thy Meals. 
Benjamin Franklin 
Happiness is good health and a bad memory. 
Ingrid Bergman 
Never deny a diagnosis, but do deny the negative verdict that may go with it. 
Norman Cousins 

Go back to Chapter 15 – Water.
Go on to Chapter 17 – Community lost and found.
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