M a r c h   2 0 0 6

Ghana has one of the shortest life expectancies in the world.
Guest Writer

Ghana journal (part one)
They only come out at night
by Dan Buettner

In September, when we last heard from adventuring educator and three-time Guinness World Record holder Dan Buettner, he had just provided us with an eight-part crash course on the ins and outs of the Galápagos Islands. Since then, his research on aging has appeared as a cover story in National Geographic and his work continues in Africa this year under the name of Blue Zones. Here's his latest report:

don't care what anyone says. There are creatures that come out at night and kill children. And I've just seen one.

As part of a worldwide quest for secrets on how to live a long, healthy life, I have come to Ghana, a tiny country in West Africa. Ghana is about the size of Oregon. Forests blanket much of the south where, in a few protected areas, lions and elephants still roam. Northern Ghana is dryer and hotter, and the Savannah dominates the landscape. At the moment, seasonal winds carry air so thick with Saharan sands that the sun looks like a bright smudge in a milky sky. If you take a long breath, you can feel the grit grinding between your teeth.

Ghana has gold. Lots of it. That is what first caught the attention of the outside world. The Portuguese first arrived in Ghana in 1471 and, over the next three centuries, exported tons of the precious metal to Europe. Around 1665, slaves began to replace gold as the main export. An estimated 20 million human slaves were traded through this part of Africa and sent toward the United States in ships. If you're African American, there is a good chance your ancestors lived, or at least passed through, here.

Malaria kills more than two million kids a year, mostly in Africa.

Today, we can thank Ghana for chocolate. Over half the world's cacao production comes out of Ghana and the neighboring Ivory Coast. In addition to exporting cacao, Ghanaians still mine gold and fish. There are, of course, doctors, lawyers, writers and soccer stars, too, but most people here are simple farmers, growing much of their own food. On average, Ghanaians only earn $400 per year. Not only do people in Ghana make little money, they tend to live short lives.

The average life expectancy in Ghana is only 57 years, 21 years shorter than the U.S. average. You might wonder why Blue Zones has come to Ghana, a place where life is so short. I am here because in order to fully understand how populations can have a higher life expectancy, we must also understand what ends life prematurely.

Ghanaians live in a country with one of the shortest life expectancies in the world. Why? Are they doing something wrong? Do they have bad genes? Do they eat too many Big Macs? Well, as unlikely as it sounds, creatures in the night are very much to blame.

At the moment I'm staying just outside of the capital city, Accra, on an Atlantic beach called Labadi. It's 11 p.m., and the air outside my room is still hot and soupy with humidity. The mechanical whine of a thousand African cicadas is so loud it drowns out even the roar of the waves crashing on the beach. To my left there's a dark, still lagoon flanked by rioting mangrove trees. In there lurk the kid-killers, the creatures that come out at night and feed on human blood.

These creatures are called Anopheles mosquitoes and they hatch from eggs close to the ground, making it easy to seek their victims. When they bite, they inject a single-celled organism called a protozoan into the blood that invades red blood cells. There, the organism reproduces many times over until the red blood cell explodes, releasing thousands more protozoa to invade the entire body. This is how you get malaria.

I once got malaria while on an expedition in Central America.

It began innocently enough. I started feeling tired and achy with a slight headache. Within a day, the headache became intense. It felt like there was a little man in my head hammering at the back of my eyeballs. My temperature soared to 104 degrees. One minute I'd be sweating so profusely that it would dribble off of me; a few minutes later I'd be curled up in a ball with teeth-chattering chills.

My eyes turned yellow (jaundice is a sign that the protozoa are destroying your liver cells) and I had zero energy. It took all of my strength to get out of my hammock once a day to draw a bucket of well water and pour it over my head, then stagger back to my hammock. I recovered after two weeks, but in bad cases (there are four types), untreated malaria can proceed to shock, lung and kidney failure, coma and death.

Today, I had the chance to ask Assistant Minister of Tourism Freddy Ayam about malaria.

Dan Buettner (visit his Blue Zones site).

"I get it every month," he chuckled. "It's like getting a cold." But when I asked about malaria and children, he got very serious and admitted that malaria kills more children here than anything else. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 280 million cases of malaria occur every year, killing around two million children, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

So, there really are creatures in the night that kill. But, then again, the mosquito in my room that inspired this article is now but a smudge on the wall. I squashed it with a newspaper.

– return next month for Dan's next journal entry –

E-mail Dan, visit the Blue Zones Web site and find more of his writing in our archives.

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