Read an Excerpt
(It's Your Health, Not Theirs)
Let's start at the bottom line. Americans enjoy the best health and longest life spans in our history. Yet medical advances aside, we worry more about our health than ever before. We have become obsessed and neurotic to the point where we bounce like pinballs from one health-related anxiety and scare to another. Be honest -- that's really why you bought this book (fortunately, you are that anxious). Rather than basking in triumph over the scourges of our ancestors and enjoying our good health, we live in fear and paranoia. Relax. Things are better than you think. Give me 325 pages or so, and I'll prove it to you.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying for a second that life is risk-free or comes with any guarantees. But from the start of this century in particular, medical science has advanced with extraordinary speed. In 1928 we had effective treatments for at most only 10 percent of the 360 most serious diseases. Nowadays we can handle most of them. Consider these numbers, culled by Harvard psychiatrist Arthur Barsky from government and other sources. If you were born in 1900, you were expected to live to age forty-seven. Through the century, life expectancy has rocketed. After the millennium, it will be over eighty. A child born today is likely to live longer than at any time since we started tap dancing onto the planet.
Isn't it strange that as things get better, we feel worse? If we're not semistarving ourselves to a slimmer body, or trudging up StairMasters to nowhere, we feel guilty that we're not doing what we should do, whatever that is. When the wonders ofmodern medicine aren't perfect, we whine and complain and sue and turn back to witch-doctor wannabes in disguise and other quacks. Barsky calls this "the paradox of health." Our concept of healthiness, he found, has not kept pace with medicine's overall gains. Although methodologies differ among several surveys, all report similar trends. In the 1920s, the average American reported having a serious, acute, or disabling illness every sixteen months. What do you think that same survey found in the 1980s? More than two a year, with each episode lasting longer than in the 1920s.
Another survey compared public concern with health between the 1950s and the 1970s. Folks were asked about specific symptoms, like breathing trouble, rapid heartbeats, palpitations, and pain. They complained of more poor health in the 1970s, and fewer people reported being symptom-free. Comparing the 1970s and 1980s, people said they were less satisfied with their health as time went on. So much for the comforts of science.
We report being sick more. We report illnesses as recurring. We report each episode as lasting longer. Yet in reality, we are not sick more. We don't have more recurring illnesses. And we are not sick longer.
The truth is that as a population, we seem less able to tolerate even slight discomforts. In fact, we view such discomforts as real pathology. We are faster to consider ourselves sick and run faster to doctors for everything from our stuffed sinuses to our stiff joints. The logical question, then, is have we become a hypochondriacal culture? Hypochondriacs, contrary to what many think, do not imagine their pain. But they do overreact to a multitude of common little aches and discomforts. All the attention to fitness, diets, and exercise simply means we spend more time thinking about our bodies. That's not necessarily a healthy trend.
In the two decades I've been a media doctor, I've noticed a change on my radio call-in show. Early on, the calls seemed more substantive. There were real symptoms needing real advice. Nowadays there are more calls about vague and what I judge to be innocuous symptoms. "Dr. Edell, I have this funny tingling sensation in my tummy," or pelvis, or legs. "Could it be multiple sclerosis?" Headaches are quickly presumed to be brain tumors. Chest discomfort? Must be heart disease. Routine dryness of the skin? The heartbreak of psoriasis. Normal vaginal secretions? Infection, definitely. I have never gotten so many calls from men concerned about the clumpiness or textural qualities of their semen. Even routine forgetfulness, stuff our forefathers forgot to worry about, must be early Alzheimer's. Sore muscles? Trot down to the clinic. Got a cold? Off to the doctor, even though you must know that colds taper off in a week if you go to the doctor -- and in seven days if you don't.
It's understandable, considering how everyone is pummeled with diagnostic nightmares by the media. It's human nature. How can you ignore indigestion after television's ER features a character whose presumed heartburn turns out to be a heart attack? News of an obscure disease convinces you that you may be a victim. This isn't new. In the 1950s, my father brought home a copy of the Merck Manual, a single-volume compendium of the main diseases known to man. After a few months of looking up all our symptoms and convincing themselves we all had every disease in the book, my parents came to their senses and chucked the book.
After the first media reports on HIV in the early 1980s, my show was inundated by panicked callers. Some had engaged in unprotected sex, others were worried about oral sex or kissing. One woman anguished about her adult son who had gone to a topless bar where a lactating dancer had sprayed the audience with breast milk. He got splattered, his mother cried, and what of those stories about AIDS in breast milk? Then there was the frantic couple who slept all night in a hotel room only to find a used condom suspended in a lamp. Had HIV vapors attacked them overnight?