Today John had to revisit the dentist’s office after last week’s dental cleansing. John does not like visiting the dentist’s office; I think no child thinks any doctor’s office is a fun place. However, since he has a cavity in one of his teeth, the doctor has to fill the hole to get it fixed.

When he heard filling one tooth costs 280 dollars, he was surprised. He said, “I was not feeling good. The doctor made my mouth numb with a needle. After that, it’s 280 per tooth?”

I reminded him that I had told him 3 years ago when I noticed he liked to eat chocolates in the evening. I advised him to clean his teeth thoroughly; otherwise, he would develop cavities and have to visit the dentist’s office to fill the holes. He did not pay much attention. Today, 3 years later, he realized that this is not fun.

I told John that so many habits have a slow effect, so we don’t realize those are dangerous until we suffer from them years later, just like his dad, who started to deal with his bad teeth and had to get a crown at an early age. He paid the high bill for that crown and also suffered. 

There are some bad habits, but they do not seem so dangerous since those habits develop slowly until they start hurting our health and body. 

John one day asked me why people can become so overweight, and they are hurt by that. I told him that 300 pounds does not develop overnight; The weight just slowly goes higher and higher, maybe from 100 pounds, then 105, then 110, then bit by bit the weight starts to be out of control. People who eat lots of high calories in junk food but lack exercise quite possibly have an overweight problem. Time is a fair judge except for some generic effects, which are out of our control and are not from our habits. We will be rewarded or punished for what we have done over time. It’s a slow-time effect.

There’s an old story about the “boiled frogs” in Chinese. The frogs were put in the water. In the beginning, the water was cold, but the temperature increased bit by bit very slowly, so the frogs were not aware of that. Once the water temperature became hot, and it was dangerous and boiling, those frogs were fully cooked.  It was already too late for the frogs to jump out, as they were used to the temperature and did not realize that it could get high enough to kill them.

That’s why I told John that habits are so important. Our long-term habits build us into different people. Some are everyday habits like eating habits.

A healthy body needs healthy dietary habits, but if we feed ourselves junk or unhealthy food, for example, lots of deep fried foods, hot chips, processed or smoked meats, high sugar cakes, sugary drinks, alcoholic drinks, unhealthy snacks (such as chips), etc. our body slowly absorbs them and processes them over the years.  Then the outcome can be all kinds of long-term severe diseases, such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, high blood sugar, diabetes, cancers, unhealthy heart diseases, etc.

The slow effect can impact our lives in every area, not just our health. 

Another example is if we don’t read and don’t gather knowledge, we don’t have the cognitive ability to understand many things in our fast-moving society. Many people lose lots of their money from following others in investing and ignore how much they can afford to lose in their investments. Some people go bankrupt and, as a result of their big financial loss, even commit suicide. People who lack financial knowledge don’t know how much is the maximum they should invest, so any unexpected expenses won’t influence their lives too greatly.

And if we don’t keep updated with knowledge, we might lose our job when the old skills become outdated and new skills are in demand. They are the slow effects, and changes or skill demand does not happen overnight but develop over the years. If we use boiled frogs as a metaphor, we may not realize what is happening outside, as we may stay cozy in our comfort zone. 

Cancer, such as lung cancer, develops over 8 years or a decade. Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. Cigarette smoking is linked to about 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the United States. When a person starts to smoke, they won’t get lung cancer; that’s why people don’t feel there’s danger ahead. So people won’t think smoking can be life-threatening in the beginning. 

The slow effect is not like the quick effect, such as if we eat spoiled food. We will suffer from food poisoning symptoms, which can start within hours of eating contaminated food, often including nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. So we know we cannot eat spoiled food because of that immediate effect. So people are more aware of the quick effect cases like if we underdress in a cold temperature, we get cold or have a fever, so we know we need to dress warm enough for the temperature.

However, what usually gets ignored or neglected is the slow effect; one of my ex-colleagues has a serious neck problem, which stopped him from working for a couple of months. Again a serious neck problem does not happen overnight, so the neck and spine slowly develop in a way towards an unhealthy route until one day, the warning comes, and the body starts to strike. 

One day, I saw my university classmates’ pictures; two ladies looked like they were staying in their 20s. They look so fresh, bright, fit, and confident. And another one looked like she was 45-ish. Her teeth looked badly maintained when she smiled. Her skin looked dry and uneven.  There were colorful spots here and there on her dry skin that had lots of wrinkles. 

They are the same classmates, who had been in that same class decades ago, but how come they look so different? Later I heard the ones who looked 20ish had done quite a significant amount of exercise for a number of years; they went to the gym 3 times minimum a week, and they had stricter diet habits than random dining. Their good habits have had slow effects. The other classmate, who looked 20 years older, I don’t know what happened to her as she hasn’t been in touch with us; however, one thing I can tell is she may lack self-management. 

Be aware of the quick effects, and ignore the slow effects.

That is the typical behavior for lots of us; we care about the quick effects as we know the impact that happens quickly, so we are motivated to work on those. However, more important are the slow effects, what we eat today and ongoing, determining our health in 10 years, 20 years, and whether we can have a high-quality life when we grow old. There are older people who have been quite active, traveling around the world, enjoying food and exercise at over 80 years of age. There are also those elderly people who have health deterioration in their early 60s or 70s and need other people’s care due to poor health. That might be us in the future, looking forward to age 70 or 80 in several decades. What type of life would we like to have?

So, I told John, do you want another cavity in another year or two? He said no. However, son, I know you are so young. I hope you will remember the “slow effect” I am telling you today.