Avoiding disease, disability and death is hard; beware those who pretend it is easy

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What if I told you that if an individual fish hatching from one of a billion eggs in the ocean simply ate right, exercised and practiced situational awareness, he or she could reliably live out a full natural lifespan.

You’d laugh, right?

You’d laugh because fish, like every living thing — animal, plant or protist — is subject to complex forces over which it has no control. It is subject to the whims of genetics, the results of mutations, the appetites of the other fish around it, the weather, the list is nearly endless. The idea that eating right and exercising, or any other simple plan, could ensure a long life free of disease or disability for a fish is nothing short of absurd.

It’s nothing short of absurd for human beings, too. That’s because they are subject to the same forces as all other living things. That’s why you should beware anyone who offers simple solutions to living out a natural lifespan. Human health is extremely complex, because human beings are extremely complex, and any simple solutions are reliably guaranteed to be wrong.

True, human beings have technology that can keep us from being prey for wild animals, can protect us in large part from freezing to death, and in first world countries our luck and technology protect us from starving to death. Our technology protects us from those central realities of the life of our ancient and not so ancient ancestors. We even have antibiotics that can keep us from being prey to wild bacteria and viruses, anesthesia and surgery that can keep us from being felled by routine internal failings like appendicitis, and the preventive technology of modern obstetrics that can reduce the naturally high death toll of childbirth. But although technology, through routine use has come to be seen as simple, it is quite complex in reality.

That’s why any time anyone offers you a simple solution for staying healthy and living out a full natural lifespan, you should run in the opposite direction. They may mean well; they may believe (desperately!) what they are saying, but they are inevitably wrong.

Eating right (“nutrition”) is the key to long life, safe childbirth, and freedom from viral and bacterial disease? If only! It can no more guarantee long healthy life to us than to a fish.

Popping vitamins and supplements, boosting your microbiome, avoiding GMOs and non-organic food is the key to long life, safe childbirth and freedom from viral and bacterial disease? If only. Those things can no more guarntee long healthy life to us than to a fish.

Essential oils, cranio-sacral therapy and homeopathy is the key to long life, safe childbirth and freedom from viral and bacterial disease? If only. Those things can no more guarntee long healthy life to us than to a fish.

Why? Because we, like fish, and all living things, are products of evolution and evolution leads to the survival of the fittest, NOT the survival of everyone.

In contrast, the central conceit of all pseudoscientific health movements, from anti-vax to homebirth, from organic food to demonizing sugar, from restriction diets to essential oils, from raw milk to fear of GMOs, is the belief that everyone who is currently alive is perfectly adapted to avoid all health dangers and live to be 80 or older.

The sad, incontrovertible, unavoidable truth is that we are not perfectly adapted for our current environment or for ANY environment. There is literally no such thing as a living thing that is perfectly adapted, and, in any case, there is no such thing as an environment that is static. The environment is constantly changing offering better or worse odds of survival depending on the organism’s genetic legacy.

So why do people persist in believing that there are simple ways to guarantee health? For the exact same reason they continue to believe in life after death; because the alternative is too scary. Just as it is too frightening to contemplate our demise, it is too frightening to contemplate that we are subject to the vagaries of genetics, bacterial and viral predation, and simple bad luck.

The fish swimming amid the school who ends up eaten by the predator could not have averted his fate by eating better, exercising more, gobbling supplements, using essential oils or getting “adjusted” by a cranio-sacral therapist. He got eaten because he wasn’t the fittest fish in the school.

Similarly, the human being who dies in childbirth, gets cancer or succumbs to tetanus could not have averted his fate by eating better, exercising more, gobbling supplements, using essential oils or getting “adjusted” by a cranio-sacral therapist. Those things happened because he or she wasn’t the fittest individual in the specific situation in which he or she ended up.

The reason people are diseased, disabled or die prematurely is not because we have used technology to fool and anger Mother Nature and we can eat and exercise our way back. The real reason is we are living things subject to the same evolutionary laws as every other animal, plant or protist. We can’t all be the fittest and even those who are the fittest in one environment can turn out to be unfit in a different environment.

Yes, complex, sophisticated technology can and does avert the evolutionary decree, but simple solutions are utterly useless. Indeed simple solutions may be worse than useless, since their very ease and simplicity can fool us into rejecting the highly technological measures that actually work.

Alternative health is nothing more than glorified wishful thinking and it has as much chance of preventing disease, saving your life or guaranteeing a full lifespan for you as it does for a fish; none at all. Beware of those who claim that there is an easy way to avoid disease disability and death. They are lying to themselves first and foremost, and therefore they are lying to you.

  • Taysha

    As my favorite doctor once said: “You can do everything ‘right’ and still get run over by a bus on your way out of my office. Don’t sweat the little things.”

  • Brooke

    Genetic determinalism has been disproven by the theory of epigentics, that some of genes are turned on and off by environmental factors that include things like diet. I don’t understand how people can easily understand that quitting smoking can dramatically reduce your chance of developing lung cancer or that quitting drinking can reduce your chances of developing fatty liver disease but dismiss health and lifestyle choices in other areas reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes etc. Its been well established through decades of research that diet does correspond to a lower instance of various diseases, that obesity is more of a health risk than smoking. Obviously diet can not fix everything but its better for example to have depression without heart disease than clinical depression and heart disease. Not to mention that a lot of these things don’t cost a lot of extra money and even if they don’t add years to your life make people feel physically/mentally better in their day to day lives.

    • Azuran

      You’re just being too rigid. No one is saying that eating healthy, exercising or not smoking are useless, they do reduce the incidence of many diseases. But the key word is REDUCE. And you’ll notice that every single doctor out there is constantly telling people to stop smoking, reduce or stop their alcohol consumption, exercise and eat more healthy food. It’s not a secret or anything.

      However, a healthy diet and exercising is not a guaranteed ticket to healthy life and longevity. It can help, but it’s far from going to be magical.
      Many people are born with genetic diseases. No amount of diet will cure that.
      Even extremely healthy people with very well functioning immune system can still get cancer, they can still have heart attack, they can still catch infection.
      No amount of food is going to keep you safe from dumb accidents.
      And the point is to avoid those talking about a magical secret to health: Those selling detox diets, super specific training programs, natural supplements, claims about super food like kale or honey.
      So go ahead, eat more healthy, exercise more, it’s definitely going to help. But don’t think it’s going to guarantee you’re going to live to 100, don’t become paranoid over it, and don’t give your money to someone who’s claiming to have the secret to a long healthy life.

    • Azuran

      And: oh sure, epigenetics. You really think that epigenetics is able to compensate for 100% of everything 100% of the time?
      If epigenetic was so powerfull, then diet wouldn’t be important at all, since it could compensate for it.
      And what do you do if your magical epigenetics change things inside of you before you are even born?

      • Brooke

        No…I don’t and that isn’t even remotely what I am saying. We do experience epigentic changes in the womb. Environmental factors that are outside of our control also turn genes on and off. However there are actually only a few genetic mutations that cause disease and the most common causes of death like heart disease are not caused by a genetic mutation but by lifestyle and diet in most instances.

        I’m not saying to listen to diet and exercise gurus but there is plenty of research that looks at how diet affects human health. Super specific training programs can be helpful to people looking to achieve a certain appearance but yes are mostly superficial and not backed up by science. Supplements have a place, so does detox for people with conditions like heavy metal poisoning. The issue isn’t that diet isn’t important or that kale isn’t something people should eat but a few people who want to make money selling protein powders and magical elixars. The danger I see is that some people think okay well Andrew Weil is full of crap so I’m just going to keep drinking 2 liters of soda a day and eating fast food three times a week, I’m overweight because of genetics. As opposed to, okay this guy is full of it, but here is someone who is really a doctor with a research background like Dr.McDougall so I’m going to follow their advice to lose weight and avoid what chronic health conditions I am able to avoid.

        • Amy Tuteur, MD

          “However there are actually only a few genetic mutations that cause disease and the most common causes of death like heart disease are not caused by a genetic mutation but by lifestyle and diet in most instances.”

          As I said, beware people like Brooke who pretend that avoiding death and disability is easy.

          • Brooke

            I’m not even remotely suggesting people can avoid death. Obviously everyone dies eventually and some from causes that cannot be controlled. However telling people to ignore research that shows that people with heart disease had noticeable improvement by following a particular diet is unethical. I’m not the one who did this research or who is making these claims, obviously I’m not a doctor. Maybe you should email Dr. Michael Greger yourself and tell him he’s pushing pseudoscience if you think he’s wrong. Or contact the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and tell them to stop lobbying the government to change their dietary recommendations because they don’t matter or have an impact on health or life expectancy.

          • Amy Tuteur, MD

            Heart disease is a category, not a diagnosis. There are all kinds of heart disease each with its own causes, genetics and treatments.

            As H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Heart disease is a complex problem.

          • Isilzha

            Oh, but if someone gets a serious illness then it’s totally that person’s fault. I generally wish some unpleasant disease on people like you.

        • Azuran

          So basically, you are trying to disagree with the post……while agreeing with it.

          And BTW, there are genetic predisposition to heart diseases. Environmental factors can make it worst, but genetic still plays a role.

          • Brooke

            Not everyone thinks in black and white.

            Genetic predisposition is different than having a disease caused by a genetic mutation. Heart disease is different from color blindness as an example.

          • Amy Tuteur, MD

            Really? Please explain how.

          • Azuran

            Both are still genetics. Genetics, whether its one bad gene that causes a specific disease or multiple different genes that modify your risks of a variety of diseases is still genetic. Both can affect your health in major ways, and your life choices will have little impact on them.

    • Cartman36

      Epigenetics has certainly not disproven that genes significantly influence health and other life outcomes.

      • Brooke

        It shows that the idea of genetics as in “I’m overweight because of my genes” or “Sally got lung cancer because of her genes” is false though. Most people are overweight because they eat too much, Sally didn’t get lung cancer because of poor genetics but because she smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 50 years. Not as complicated as you’re making it out to be.

        • Amy Tuteur, MD

          Like I said, beware those who pretend avoiding disease, disability and death are easy.

          Why did Paul Kalanithi, the neurosurgeon who wrote “Breath Becomes Air” get stage 4 lung cancer and die even though he had never smoked? Indeed, 10% or more of people who get lung cancer have never smoked.

          Doctors and scientists acknowledge that they don’t know the answer to such questions. Quacks and their acolytes always “know” the answer.

          • Cartman36

            I just finished Dr. Atul Gawande’s book “being mortal”. It’s about palliative care and dying in the US but he makes some really good points that our bodies enevitably wear out. No matter how good our diet is at some point our bodies will reach the end of their useful service life.

        • Box of Salt

          Brooke: what if Sally was a nonsmoker who lived in the house she inherited from her parents in New England, and pursued her sewing hobby since her teenaged years in the “finished” part of the basement?

          If you’re upset that you think you’re getting fat, get off the internet and do whatever exercise works for you. Later today I’ll be playing catch with one of my kids, and I’m hoping the rain lets off to let me take a ride safely (as in on dry roadways) on my bike tomorrow.

          Hmm. I might need to suggest to helmet manufacturers that they incorporate some place to hold ID. Now that I have dependents, I’d be less concerned about crashing if I knew they could figure who I am.

    • Box of Salt

      Brooke,
      maybe you should actually take a class in biology before waxing poetic about epigenetics. Do you even know what it means? How it works? What molecules in the cell are involved? No, don’t bother googling it.

      I hope your 2017 finds you and yours well and healthy, living a lifestyle you and your family can maintain.
      And that you remember how lucky you are.

      • Brooke

        I have taken college biology courses and attended a lecture on genetics that talked about epigentics over a decade ago…I am not being poetic?

        • Amy Tuteur, MD

          The you weren’t paying much attention.

          Epigenetics is about the factors that modify genetic expression. It doesn’t supersede genetics; it is entirely dependent upon it.

          • Box of Salt

            I will note that Brooke didn’t bother trying to answer the question about the molecules involved. I understand why mother doesn’t know the details – many of them were discovered after she completed her education as an engineer. But I’m pretty sure Brooke is a lot younger than my mother.

            I will also note that Brooke didn’t specify whether she had passed her bio class.

        • Cyndi

          “I have taken college biology courses and attended a lecture on genetics that talked about epigentics over a decade ago.” This is why we have such an issue with pseudoscience today. Brooke, respectfully, you aren’t an expert in genetics by virtue of a few college biology courses and a lecture you attended over ten years ago. Physiology, immunology, genetics are exquisitely complicated disciplines, and the practitioners of such eat, sleep, breathe, and live their disciplines. New discoveries are made continually, and if you had taken more than a few college biology courses you would realize how silly you sound expounding upon something you heard in a lecture 10 years ago.

  • Bystander

    The only thing missing from this post is the horrendous role of luck. No amount of fitness prevents the shoaling fish from being sucked up if *that* whale is in *that* place at *that* time. Nor does any amount of fitness prevent that whale from being harpooned from a whaler if one happened to be going by at that time.
    Unlucky hits happen all the time and have no relation to how fit you are — the misstep that breaks a leg, the driver who wasn’t paying attention, the one mushroom in the stew that wasn’t harmless — and longevity is as much a function of being lucky as being fit in some way.

    I loved Hayflick’s conceptual model of senscence in normal cells as being the statistical outcome of genetic ‘hits’ that every dividing cell takes that eventually become critical, preventing further division. While empirical work on telomeres has refined that understanding, his observation is as sound a metaphor for life as any.

    • I say this all the time to my son. “we have so many foods to choose from- we are very lucky! Not everyone can choose what to eat.” etc etc. We are remarkably lucky.

    • Brooke

      Well when you ignore some health advice that’s what we call “pushing your luck”.

  • Bystander

    Preventing death… sure, that’s easy. Have a transmissable tumor that you do pass on and provided it’s not so aggressive that it warrants eradication, you’ll live centuries. It works for dogs. 😀
    Oh, you mean preventing the death of your persona… sorry.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      Or a tumor that grows nicely in culture. It’s worked well for HeLa and Jurkat cells.

  • People desperately want an answer to their fears of mortality. I know that natural child birth was (for me) a lot of comforting lies about something that is inherently anxiety inducing for someone who had worked in hospitals for so long. Pregnancy and childbirth scared me, NCB comforted me. I wish I had worked on coping with the anxiety instead of lying to myself about my fear being irrational. My fears were rational, my reaction was not.

  • PrimaryCareDoc

    There’s one big secret to longevity that I’ve found in my years of primary care practice. Lean close, and I’ll whisper it in your ear….

    Choose the right parents.

    That’s it. Be born into a white family that is middle class or higher, and make sure that your parents and grandparents have lived to a ripe old age with good health.

    Don’t like my answer? No one does, especially snake oil salesmen. But it’s true. Genetics and socioeconomics count for more than anything else. Too bad you can’t do anything, for the most part, to change those.

    • Longevity studies have found a handful of factors that exist in societies with an inordinate % of people living past 100, but of course genetics cannot be factored OUT of those cases either. Surprisingly some of the factors were social, like having life long friends and working your entire life instead of retiring.

      • Daleth

        That is only surprising for those who subscribe to the relatively old fashioned view that “mind” and “matter” are two completely different things that cannot influence each other.

    • Daleth

      Done! I chose right! Damn, I am SO SMART.

    • Bystander

      Or, if you’ve made the mistake of not being white, be born into a middle class family where you’re in a dominant group wherever you are. It’s GOOD not to be downtrodden.

      Unfortunately for my pension pot, I’ve grandparents and great grandparents who lived well into their nineties in good health.

    • Brooke

      Ah that’s literally because rich people eat better, have time to exercise and lead less stressful lives.

      • Box of Salt

        PrimaryCareDoc 2 years ago (date of post: May 2015) “Ah that’s literally because rich people eat better, have time to exercise and lead less stressful lives”

        Jealous, Brooke?

        Why are you picking fights on a year and a half old post?

  • Neya

    I generally agree with most of the information that Dr. Amy posts in this blog. However, I find that this post throws the baby with the bathwater. While I get that the target of the discussion are not, for example, exercise science, psychology, or nutrition, I think that the post seems to suggest that the results from these fields don’t have equal validity as medical research.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      I’m not arguing that those areas are invalid or have no impact on health. My point is that we often imagine that we would exist in a state of health if it weren’t for preventable medical problems. That’s simply untrue. So much of our health is due to our individual genetics and no amount of diet or exercise or psychology has any impact on that.

      The underlying assumption of contemporary first world societies is that we are all supposed to be healthy all the time and if we’re not, we must be doing something wrong. The reality is that we are NOT all supposed to be health and therefore it is not our fault if we are sick or disabled.

      • Neya

        I completely agree with your response. However, the tone of the message above does not really communicate that response. That’s all!

  • A

    I agree with the message, but someone about the delivery just strikes me as off this time. If I could only know what it is… (Don’t you hate it when that happens? Or does it just happen to me?)

    • EllenL

      Maybe people are uncomfortable with this topic because we all want to believe we have more control over our lives than we do.

      • sdsures

        I’ve been disabled since I was born, so very early on I learned how to adapt when possible. On the other hand, if someone becomes severely disabled later in life, and previously having had very few major medical problems (let’s say the worst thing they’ve experienced is childbirth or appendicitis), then the arrival of that disability (let’s say a stroke that causes permanent but not complete paralysis in one limb) is going to come as a much bigger shock. The adjustment period may take longer, because they have to do rehab physio, or speech therapy, and/or learning how to walk all over again, or switch to the good hand for everyday activities.

        Psychological adjustment can also prove very difficult, and in some cases, patients never fully get used to or are comfortable with the fact that this is probably going to be around the rest of their lives. It’s not like that when you’re born with a disability, because you have no other yardstick against which to measure whether or not you miss something How can you miss something you never had in the first place?

        So people in that second situation can feel helpless, like they have zero control over their lives because they may need some help in the form of a mobility device, a PA, homecare, etc. They were used to doing everything by themselves, and having to rely on someone else. A personal example would be my late step-granny. She was about ten years younger than my grandfather, and shortly after he died in 2010, she had a series of strokes that caused aphasia – prior to his death, she had been relatively healthy. This frustrated her extremely because she used to be a talkative person; she was prone to losing her temper from frustration.

        • demodocus

          I’ve noticed this, too. People who develop a disability in early childhood adapt pretty quickly as well. A guy I know who went from normally sighted to totally blind in his late teens still had a hint of sorrow discussing it even 20+ years later. (Not that he let it slow him down; he had a college degree, a full time job, and was one of the best guys on the beep-baseball team.)

          • sdsures

            What’s beep-baseball?

          • demodocus

            The short answer is it’s a modified version of baseball played by the visually impaired in the U.S. and Taiwan.
            Everyone wears masks so the slightly sighted don’t have an advantage over the totals. The ball beeps and the batter runs to either 1st or 3rd (there is not 2nd) depending on which one is buzzing. If he or she gets there before a fielder holds up the ball, they get a run. The pitcher and catcher are sighted (or borderline) and from the batter’s team. Spotters in the field (1 or 2) are also sighted and call out which sector the ball’s headed in. Taiwan uses 1 spotter, and my God, they are good! (They send an all-star team for the world series, and they are nearly always in the final game)

          • sdsures

            Cool! I was pretty sure it was for the blind or partially sighted, but I wanted to know deets.

      • And we *hate* when our noses are rubbed in it by circumstance.

  • Daleth

    Jeanne Calmant lived to be 122, and here’s her advice:

    “Calment ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to a diet rich in olive oil (which she also rubbed onto her skin), as well as a diet of port wine, and ate nearly one kilogram (2.2 lb) of chocolate every week. She also credited her calmness, saying, “That’s why they call me Calment.” Calment reportedly remained mentally intact until her very end.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Calment

    I intend to follow her advice on the port and chocolate IMMEDIATELY. Actually I’m already following it on the chocolate; just need to go get some port. And work a little more olive oil into the diet.

    She died in 1997. As a little girl, she worked in her father’s paint shop and sold paint to Vincent Van Gogh:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1008681/Alcohol-cigarettes-chocolates-sweets–The-secrets-long-life.html

    • Bugsy

      The chocolate part sounds particularly great to me. 🙂

      • Daleth

        Agreed! I can definitely deal with 1kg of good chocolate a week. Ever since having my babies I’ve been eating about that much. And apparently it’s good for you, since my pregnancy weight vanished within weeks.

        • Bugsy

          Oooh, that’s a great tip for me to try once #2 arrives. Thanks!!

          • Daleth

            I rationalized that it was the caffeine. 🙂

    • KeeperOfTheBooks

      Olive oil, port, and a kilo of chocolate every week.
      Where do I sign up???????

      • Daleth

        France, apparently. But you can import that shit right over here.

    • If I live to 120 and the news comes and talks to me about why I’m going to tell them I ate a pinecone every day or something lol

  • Amy

    I’m just gonna leave this here. Because laughter may really be the best medicine of all:

    http://devour.com/video/how-to-become-gluten-intolerant/

    • KL

      That was great!

    • Megan

      Loved this. The gluten-free trend does irk me.

      • DelphiniumFalcon

        I hate the gluten free band wagon. My mom and sister are actually full blown “ow, my immune system is trying to eat my intestines” celiacs. They’re polite, don’t want to be a bother, and mom keeps gluten free soy sauce with her when we go Asian places in case all she can get is rice. They just don’t want to feel like they want to die later that night if they get contaminated food.

        The ones that do it to be trendy… I want to strangle them. So rude to resturaunt staff, uppity attitudes of superiority, and the real kicker: they have no idea what gluten is. Just that it’s somehow bad. Goes with that toxins post from the other day. In reality my sister would kill for a real pizza if it didn’t mean the next few days were intestinal hell. She and mom don’t do it to be trendy. They do it because vitamin K defiencies and liver cancer are a reality for them if they eat regular bread.

        Lucky me, that gene skipped me so I’m going to be over here eating fluffy, flaky, wonderful pastries that only gluten can give you. And then chase the fake gluten free people around with it threatening to touch them with it.

        • Monkey Professor for a Head

          I remember reading an article that was basically “If science could cure coeliacs, would you eat gluten?” There were so many comments underneath from people stating that they wouldn’t, that they were so much healthier now etc. Meanwhile my response was “Hell ya!” I’m starting to learn a bit about gluten free baking, and I’ve had a few successes, but there are some things that are just not going to work without gluten.

          • DelphiniumFalcon

            I’ve discovered that the new King Arthur brand gluten free flour works out really well for chocolate based cakes. I’ve made a red velvet and a German chocolate cake for my sister and mom respectively for their birthdays. You can use it cup for cup so there’s no crazy conversions going on. Doesn’t have that nasty, gritty texture or that metallic taste the Bob’s red mill flours have had the last few years. Just put it in a food processor for a bit if you need it finer.

            Make sure you really grease the pans up and then coat with a little bit of the gf flour. Then chop off about five to ten minutes baking time depending on your altitude. Test it with a toothpick to make sure you’re good before letting it cool.

            It will also be very, very delicate so to get the cakes out of the pans I put a plate on top of the cake and then carefully turn it over to get the cake out in one piece. It can’t support itself at all so when you make a layered cake, always use a plate or something similar to put your layers on top or it’ll fall apart.

            And if it turns out like crap, just throw a ton of cream cheese frosting on it. Cream cheese frosting fixes everything.

          • Monkey Professor for a Head

            I’m not sure if they sell King Arthur brand flour in Australia, but I must keep an eye out for it. My sister in law gave me the America test kitchen gluten free cookbook for Christmas, so I’ve been mixing up their flour blend and I’ve had some good results – their bread is pretty good and the chocolate chip cookies were awesome! I’ve tried a few online recipes too – I’ve found a really good brioche recipe made with tapioca and brown rice flour, and I made some really great flatbreads with tapioca and cheddar cheese the other day.

            And I agree that frosting can fix everything!

  • Sue

    Another great post. I suspect the huge expenditure of our wealthy societies on non-science-based “therapies” relates to an innate need for simple solutions, delivered by charismatic people in a confident, comforting style, and with a “remedy” that we can take.

    In the past, this was known as “paternalism” in medicine. Perhaps the purveyors were less charismatic, but they offered parental-style problem-solving that absolved us of the need to make choices – we put ourselves in the hands of trusted experts, who tended to know our whole family and be respected in the community. That style of health care provider suited many people in past generations, but not all.

    Cut to today’s “everyone’s opinion is valid” culture, where it’s not PC to admit that you like simple, directed instructions from a trusted expert. Now we have to express individual choice by going outside “conventional” health care, showing that we are rejecting The Man, Big Pharma, the Medical-Industrial Complex etc etc – but we run straight into the arms of The New Paternalists – purveyors of woo who give the illusion of choice while giving you simplistic, directed advice, and charging lots for it. Which we readily hand over, while complaining about the fees for real health care providers.

    Finally, we end up in the arms of the real health care system in a crisis, where providers are both required and motivated to help us, whenever and wherever we turn up, with whatever needs. Ironically, this reflects a truly parental attitude – the conventional health care system is on duty all the time, no matter what, and no matter how you behave.

  • sdsures

    The other day I noticed a post of a friend who had asked other people on Facebook how to improve her immune system. People advised things like eating avocadoes, probiotics, and going vegan.

    Why did she want to improve her immune system, you may ask?

    She had a cold, and really couldn’t take the time to be sick, because of different obstacles that have recently cropped up in her family. (What her family is going through at this time is rather horrible, but I think it’s best if I keep that private.) She is of high intelligence. But she really believed initially that “improving the immune system” is the way to kick a bad cold.

    I managed not to scream, and instead quietly PMed her and said that the recommendations others had given were bunk: having a cold or the flu means that your immune system is in very good working order. Therefore, the best thing she could do to feel better were to make sure to drink plenty of fluids (soups are great), and make sure her sodium and electrolyte levels are OK. If possible, try to rest.

    She thanked me for telling her this stuff, and she said she didn’t know that a cold was just the immune system fighting hard. Strengthening the immune system in such a situation is not the right thing to do.

    Wow.

    • fiftyfifty1

      “having a cold or the flu means that your immune system is in very good working order.”

      How so? All sorts of people get flus and colds from those with excellent health and normal immune systems down to those with AIDS and other severe immune deficiencies. Having a cold or the flu tells us nothing more than that you have come in contact with a cold or flu virus to which your body did not have immunity.

      • SporkParade

        I think she was referring to the fact that the *symptoms* are caused by the body’s immune response, and not by the cold virus itself. Therefore, if you boost the immune system, the cold symptoms get worse, not better.

        • sdsures

          Exactly: the symptoms. Like mucus membranes going into batshit insane overdrive (stuffy nose), inflammation in the throat (sore throat), etc.

          • Medwife

            You’re thinking of things like cytokine storm in someone with H1N1, that their problem is actual having a nice strong (and confused) immune system. But let me tell you, I’m pregnant and have had one damn URI after another for months now, and it ain’t because my immune system is awesome.

          • sdsures

            No. I’m referring solely to the cold and (regular) flu.

      • Montserrat Blanco

        In general a cold in a inmunocompetent person is nothing. A couple of days sick. Someone inmunocompromised… You can easily end up at your hospital about one week or two. HIV positive patients with low viral count and high CD4+ behave like normal people. On the other hand if the HIV is out of hand… Bad news.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      I think people don’t understand the immune system. A strong immune system sounds like a good thing, but a strong immune system= more inflammation, which is not something you always want. Autoimmune disease, macrophage activation syndrome, and cytokine storm are all examples of a strong immune system turning nasty. A well balanced and subtle immune system is much better. Avocadoes and a vegan diet won’t give you that either.

      • demodocus

        yup. I read somewhere that part of the reason the 1918 flu was so bad, the healthiest people were often killed by their immune system going into overdrive.

      • sdsures

        Yep. I was presuming that you’d understand I wasn’t referring to autoimmune disease – merely to common cold and flu.

  • Sarah1035

    My 3 year old son was recently diagnosed with a rare genetic CNV that leaves him predisposed to a number of conditions, some like obesity I can be hyperviligent about as he grows older. Others I have no control over like epilepsy. I will make sure as he grows he has the best care possible to mitigate the damage cause by the missing genes. However, I about smacked an acquaintance who tried to sell me her MLM scheme essential oils after hearing about his issues. There is a difference between making sure you eat a healthy diet and get exercise and Wackadoodle Woo.

    • attitude devant

      Wow. I’m sorry that you have that to worry about, but as you say, there is much you can do merely by being aware. Best wishes for his health!

      • Sarah1035

        As of now all he has a gross motor delay the result of joint hypermobility and an expressive language delay. He has dodged the heart defect, chiari brain malformation and infant onset epilepsy. His doctors will be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary as he grows up. The diagnosis definitely helps when getting PT and speech therapy approved with insurance and with the school district. But I’m lucky to live in an progressive state with awesome early intervention services and have good health insurance.

        • yentavegan

          Your son will greatly benefit from having a parent like you who knows to avoid fake remedies. You will prove to be a tenacious fighter on his behalf. Fear not, you have intelligence on your side.

        • Sue

          Thank goodness for smart parents and modern medicine – your son has the best combination.

    • demodocus

      Sorry to hear it, but at least you know what to look for and what to teach him to look for. Best wishes for the management of his symptoms. (if that’s not incoherently awkward, I hope you know what I meant)

  • just me

    In general yes, but I would disagree that nutrition/diet has no bearing. Sure, switching to healthier foods may not cure or prevent some things, but can impact a person’s chances of heart disease, some cancers, etc.

    • Monkey Professor for a Head

      I think that moderation is important. Eating a balanced, generally healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight will help increase your chances of being healthy (although not necessarily overcome the impact of luck and genetics). Being super rigid with your diet, or eating x superfood and taking y supplement is not going to add much more (if anything) on top of that.

      • nomofear

        Yeah, the octegenarians you read about aren’t fanatics about anything. My grandmother is almost there, and the only thing she’s fanatic about is a glass of wine at 5:00.

        • Sullivan ThePoop

          My grandmother lived well into her 90s. She didn’t take any vitamins, ate anything, drank occasionally. Had high blood pressure and took medicine for it. My mother is well into her 70s and takes no daily medication, but does take some vitamins. She doesn’t ever drink and eats anything.

          • JJ

            My great-grandmother who lived to 104 was very diligent to have 2 pints of beer a day and lots of tea and biscuits (she was British). My grandfather is who is healthy, lives independently at 93, and has never been hospitalized, is very diligent to consume 3 gallons of non-organic homogenized milk a week. They obviously need to cash in on their secrets to success by writing about the benefits of beer, milk, and tea.

          • Monkey Professor for a Head

            Tea is very important! As an Irish immigrant in Australia, I was way way too excited to find that my local supermarket sells Barry’s (Irish brand) tea, even if it means I’m paying twice the price for it.

          • Chris Preston

            My great-grandmother, who died after falling down stairs just shy of her 102nd birthday, was very diligent in selecting her genes properly. Both her parents lived to 90 and all of her 5 sisters bar one lived into their 90s. The one who died young was run over crossing the street during a blackout in the war at age 73.

        • Valerie
    • SporkParade

      The sense I’ve gotten from doctors is that we tend to overstate the importance of nutrition and diet to health for the simple reason that it’s the only risk factor that patients have control over.

  • yentavegan

    2 years ago I had bleeding gums, ulcers on my ankles that weeped and would not heal, heartburn, throbbing knees, monthly flare ups of herpes, a facial mole that itched, pounding headaches and episodes of paranoia that robbed me of a good nights sleep. My doctor said I was obese. She prescribed Lyrica ,nexium and sent me on my way…Instead of taking my medications I decided to stop eating all processed foods that contained sugar. I started going to Zumba class. Guess what? All my health ailments are GONE… I have not had a herpes flare up in over a year…my sores have healed, my gums stopped bleeding my life has been saved. Not by taking any supplements or medications or snake oil. Just by eliminating sugar laden processed foods. Oh and I took off 70 pounds…

    • GuestWho

      I am glad the lifestyle change worked out for you and you are feeling healthier. I am trying to run more so that my asthma improves and it is hard work! Not going to stop taking my daily inhalor, but I feel like a few months in I have had fewer attacks and my quality of life has definately improved!

    • MaineJen

      Well…it makes sense that by eating a healthier diet, you lost weight and cleared up those health problems that were the result of obesity. But you’re not going around saying that a healthy diet is therefore the key to curing cancer, or preventing childbirth complications.

      • yentavegan

        being 70 pounds lighter and no longer consuming massive quantities of sugar has me wondering if I have indeed reduced my odds of getting certain cancers…I am post child-bearing age but even I know that obesity does have an impact on maternal health.

        • Chris Preston

          You almost certainly have reduced your risk of certain cancers that are known to be associated with obesity.

    • Gatita

      70 pounds is amazing! I’m trying to lose 20 and it’s hard work.

    • Alenushka

      You still can die from cancer 6 months from now. No one is arguing that exercise as well as a diet rich in vegetables and fruits is bad for you. All those things have benefits but the benefits have limits.

    • Megan

      I had a similar story and had lost 45 lbs (until I had a baby!) and was able to get off of all but one of my meds. Now I have work to do again to lose weight after baby, postpartum thyroiditis and breastfeeding (which does my weight no favors). Regarding the comment below you may die in 6 months but there is certainly something to be said for having a better quality of life and lower morbidity.

    • mishabear

      Good for you! I had lower back pain that started when I was pregnant (with twins), but persisted after their birth. Just assumed it was a natural result of pregnancy and getting old. Finally lost the “baby” weight (30+ pounds) last year after the “babies” turned 4 y.o. and the back pain miraculously disappeared…I had no idea.

    • staceyjw

      I know what you mean. I had hands and feet so swollen it looked like I was pregnant. My arms burnt from the inside, down to my fingertips, so bad it woke me up several times a night. ANd I was oh so tired.

      But the very first thing my doc did was go over all that I ate, and talked about what I should be eating. Got a bunch of tests. Got an EKG. No pills. BUT she forgot to ask about what I drank, other than asking about coffee and alcohol, so we inadvertently missed what it was: Diet Dr Pepper! I had switched in order to step down my soda addiction (that was making me fatter), and was drinking it daily.

      My neighbor pointed it out. Turns out, when I cut it out, all the problems went away in like 2 days. I even tested it, and drank some to see if that was it- yep! So no diet drinks, and most sodas are off limits too. OF course I always knew it wasn’t healthy, but I never thought it would be this serious. I

      (You are so lucky to have the good foods of Israel to eat! I never had such tasty food as there, the veggies are amazing!)

  • nomofear

    But seriously, have you heard about apple cider vinegar?

    • Alcharisi

      It tastes good in coleslaw?

      • Washing your hair in it makes it shiny and brootiful~

        • Alcharisi

          Eh, distilled vinegar works just fine for that.

          • Yes, that too 🙂

          • Alcharisi

            I prefer to save the stuff with an actual flavor for, you know, eating. 😉

        • Bugsy

          Heh, it just made mine look greasy and dull.

          • I think it depends on the texture. I have naturally coarse, thick hair- think horse’s mane. When I use vinegar and a bar shampoo made up of hippie-dippie ingredients, it does very well. When a friend who stayed at my house used it, it made her beautiful, thin curls nap up.

            So I amend my original statement: It makes some hair brootiful, some hair greasy and dull, and all of our linoleum floors shiny.

      • nomofear

        Ha! The stuff that’s hailed as the cure for all ailments tastes good in nothing.

        • Alcharisi

          Well, to be fair, I have also been known to suck on lemons.

          • nomofear

            Hey, I drank a couple tablespoons of ACV (that’s what you call it when you’re woo-oy) in my water every day for nearly two years. I only got one cold in that whole time. I was also working from home, so wasn’t constantly exposed like I used to be. But, between that and a ketogenic diet, I was a real party! 🙂

    • Deborah

      I heard that putting it in your dog’s water would make their pee smell less horrible . . . and it’s TRUE.

    • An Actual Attorney

      I’m deathly allergic to it. So, technically it will stop any illness I get.

      • nomofear

        Wow! I didn’t know that was even possible

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Well, you know, some allergies are just not compatible with life; some people are just not meant to live. *nods sagely*
        /sarcasm, just in case that wasn’t obvious

        • An Actual Attorney

          No. My allergies are certainly not compatible with life. I love modern medicine.

    • Dr Kitty

      My grandmother (yes, the 99 year old with dementia I mention below) used to make an awful concoction with ACV, honey, raw garlic and lemon juice, which she drank whenever she felt she might be coming down with something.
      She was also a major fan of cod liver oil and malt, milk of magnesia and the healing power of lying quietly in a darkened room without distractions. Her most firm conviction was that unsweetened hot black tea, dry toast and a soft boiled egg were the only appropriate foods for sick people.

      Since she lived with us and my parents both worked, if my sisters or I were ill and had to stay off school, it was my grandmother who looked after us.

      No cartoons on the sofa for us, just a dark room, horrible tasting remedies that went out of style in the 1950s and dry toast. Believe me, none of us were ever off school sick if we could possibly help it

      • nomofear

        Ha! I’ll remember that for my kiddos! I still keep it around in case I start feeling ill. May be a placebo effect, but if it works, right? Treat a cold, it’ll be gone in a week. Do nothing, seven days! 🙂

      • Sue

        Milk of Magnesia! – that was our parents’ ubiquitous remedy for all stomach complaints – which I now realise was antacid.

        • KeeperOfTheBooks

          That and–*ahem*–it’ll make sure that should you be, er, hanging onto anything internally a bit long, that that won’t be a problem for much longer. 😉

  • MHAM

    Well, I know for sure I’m not the fittest fish in the school. Left to the ravages of nature, I’d be a very tasty meal for some apex predator or scavenger for sure, regardless of my diet and lifestyle choices. I’ll happily take the corrective lenses for my absurdly myopic eyesight and the medications for my recurring kidney stones due to an anatomical anomaly. Also really stoked about not dying while delivering my oldest child. Thanks, science!

  • EllenL

    It’s reasonable and sensible to live a healthy life to the extent that you can. But we shouldn’t assume that those who are sick have only themselves to blame.

    I see this blaming attitude a lot, now that I’m part of the older generation. We are held responsible for any health problems we develop.

    Osteoporosis? You must not have exercised enough or taken your calcium supplements. Never mind that osteoporosis runs in my family of small-boned women. And the helpfulness of calcium supplements is under question.

    I could give many more examples. In this culture, we are in denial about the realities of aging. There is a pervasive belief that you can prevent the ravages of old age – and be forever young – if you just do the right things. It’s wishful thinking. As Dr. Amy would say, “If only!”

    • Mac Sherbert

      Driving my kids to school this morning I was just thinking about all those stories you read about people who have lived to 100. I can’t think of one that said “I ate all organic, no sugar, exercised 40 minutes everyday and took supplements xyz.. The last one I read said she drank a Dr. Pepper everyday! From other things I have read it seems making it to 90 or 100 has a lot to do with genes.

      • Amy M

        Yes. This is why I am convinced I am going to live longer than I want to. Many of the people on my mom’s side of the family made it well into their 90s before they died. These people were Holocaust survivors, and experienced some serious physical and mental hardship when they were in their 20s. Some were in better shape than others, at the end—my grandmother was a mess, with dementia, and physical ailments out the wazoo. It’s only worth living to 100 if your quality of life is good the whole time, otherwise? Take me out at 75 or 80, if its all seriously downhill from there.

        • The Computer Ate My Nym

          People over age 90 are extremely mixed in terms of their physical and mental health. My great aunt is 100 and living independently. I doubt she’ll see 110, mostly due to a valve that will either have to be replaced or fail and her statement that she’s 100 and doesn’t have to get the valve replaced if she doesn’t wanna (which I completely agree with), but she’ll likely die quietly one day without major suffering and, as far as I can tell, she enjoyed her 90s. It’s not necessarily horror after 70.

          • Amy M

            Oh certainly, but its hard to predict 40 or 50yrs in advance, whether or not you will be lucky enough to have a good quality of life. My other grandmother died about 2mos shy of her 80th birthday. Up until the last 3wks of her life, she was living independently, no dementia. I’d rather have my life be like hers than like the grandmother who lived to 92, but hated every minute after my grandfather died (she was about 80 at the time.)

          • Dr Kitty

            I have a 99 year old grandmother who has dementia, but was living happily with my parents with all her faculties until her early 90s, and is physically still extremely spry. She likes to walk the halls- no stick or walker- and probably walks at least 5 miles a day. She walks faster than I do.
            Yes, she’s very confused and it’s upsetting for us, but she thinks she’s in a lovely sanatorium recovering from malaria and is perfectly content, or at least she would be if we’d let her go out for a swim in the ocean (she thinks she’s in Cape Town), but we just tell her that someone saw a big shark and the beaches are closed today.

            The quiz says I should live to 90.
            All four of my grandparents lived to over 75, despite 3 of them being born before 1900.
            The three grandparents who are no longer alive were smokers, and two of my great-grandparents lived to over 90.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            It sounds as though your grandmother is having a lovely twilight time of life! The shark bit made me smile. 🙂 I’m sure it’s rough on all of you, but as things can go…she sounds very happy.
            When I was in high school, I worked briefly in a nursing home. One of the residents used to be a night watchman, and though he still was. We figured we could either a) argue the point with him or b) give him a flashlight periodically and ask him to check on a suspicious noise in the linen closet. Option b) kept him feeling very happy and useful, so why not?

          • Liz Leyden

            When I worked in Assisted Living, one new resident was an avid outdoorsman who had spent most of his life in a tiny town. Moving to my town, a comperative metropolis, was very hard on him. One day he wandered into the kitchen a few hours before dinner. Potatoes were on the menu, so one of the kitchen staff gave home some potatoes and a paring knife. The resident was thrilled. He spent the next few hours peeling potatoes and swapping hunting stories with the kitchen staff.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            That is *brilliant*, and exactly the kind of place I wish there were far more of–i.e., where everyone, not just the people who are specifically there for patient care, cares so much about the residents that they’ll do things like that.

          • Sullivan ThePoop

            My grandmother got a malignant tumor on her tongue when she was 93 and refused treatment. She said she had lived long enough. She lived another year.

          • Aliciaspinnet

            Whenever I have a patient who is reasonably healthy and living independently in their 90s, my reaction is always to try to avoid as many interventions as possible (for example avoiding statins and antihypertensives, easy on the investigations etc) and get them the hell out of hospital as soon as possible. They’re clearly doing something right, why interfere!

          • Sue

            Me too, Alicia! When I see someone in their nineties doing just fine at home, I do my utmost to ge them back there. It’s part of human dignity to accept risk. And stop those statins!!

          • Dr Kitty

            But that’s the trick isn’t it?
            Most of the well nonagenarians have spent their whole lives pointedly not dealing with Drs.

            Everyone has to die.
            Once you hit 90 something your most likely options are dementia, cancer, heart attack, stroke or pneumonia.
            Statins and hypertensives might decrease your odds of dying from heart attack and stroke, but you’re then more likely to die from something else.
            If you know you’re likely to die in the next 5 years regardless, those drugs seem like much less of a good idea.

          • The Computer Ate My Nym

            I tend to agree, unless there’s a specific reason to interfere. My great aunt, for example, had that valve I mentioned earlier replaced once, at 88. She got 12 years of healthy life out of that gamble and I’m glad she and her doctors took it. But also agree with her that a redo is unlikely to be beneficial and I’m sure not going to tell her she needs to eat better or anything silly like that.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            Speaking of hitting 110, I have been watching lately because, as of Monday, there are only three verified people still alive who were born in the 1800s (all in 1899) and 4 born in 1900, making 7 people left who were born in the 19th century. I find that amazing.

            Jeralean Talley is the oldest person alive, and will celebrate her 116th birthday on Friday.

            Her secret to a long life? Eat a lot of pork. Especially hog’s head cheese.

            Chew on that, healthy eaters!

        • Bugsy

          I still say that anyone who lives the all-pure, all-natural, no toxin, no-GMO life 100% of the time will _feel_ like they’ve lived to 100. It seems like an utterly exhausting way to live.

          • Dr Kitty

            Or, as my lecturer at medical school put it:
            “Why would you want to eat nothing but brown rice and mung beans to live to 100, if you have to live to 100 eating nothing but mung beans and brown rice?”

          • Who?

            Will you live longer, or will it just feel longer? The way I feel every time I think about tofu.

      • Gatita

        Fun quiz! Calculate your life expectancy

        Mine is 86, better than I expected.

        • Amy M

          About 82. I can live with that.

        • Houston Mom

          90.9!

        • momofone

          Woohoo! Even with my history, mine is 80.5–I’ll take it!

        • Megan

          Wow, I did much better than I thought I would: 88.89! My poor kid, looks like she won’t be rid of me anytime soon!

        • Montserrat Blanco

          88.9!!! Great!!!! Now I just have to make it without Alzheimer…

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          82.6

          Being a guy doesn’t help.

        • FrequentFlyer

          82.10 for me. When asked about living a long life, my great uncle reccomended drinking 1 small glass of moonshine every day. He only lived into his 90s though. He didn’t make to 100 so what did he know?:p

        • Mine says 86.83. I call bull. I said I was sedentary as hell. I do eat rather well and no cancer in the family, but cardiac/stroke in the family is what gets us in time. I figure 63-73 for me. As long as I remain lucid…

          Then again, I did miss the family “MI by 40” on my mom’s side.

        • Sullivan ThePoop

          I got 88.32 years

          • KarenJJ

            Close to me – 88.82 years. But I shall wait and see what it will mean for my lifespan with half my life with chronic inflammation and half my life (hopefully – at lesat) on medication for chronic inflammation. That said, we’re suprisingly healthy, in spite of the damage done to joints/nerves etc – no diabetes, heart issues etc so despite the issue with the genes in our immune system, the rest of our genes are more on our side.

        • Mishimoo

          88.69 but since I’m also Aussie, the risk factors would be different. Especially since I grew up in the tropics without decent sun protection.

          • Who?

            This is a fun one too-health age. http://www.google.co.jp/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhealthier.qld.gov.au%2Fcalculator%2F&ei=BFRcVZjsJIiMmwXErYHQDQ&usg=AFQjCNES8Q3FvjkzhIcRzDdhtstqaBDt0A&bvm=bv.93756505,d.dGY

            I’m more than 20 years younger than my actual age, which is of course very gratifying.

            But like you I have the ticking time bomb of sun damage, my skin looks like a patchwork quilt from having things out.

          • Mishimoo

            I’m 1.1 years older than my real age! Probably because I’ve been too tired to do the recommended daily 30mins of exercise this week thanks to a very busy toddler and rearranging the house, along with resting a sore hip as much as possible.

            My nan-in-law is about to have a basal cell carcinoma removed from behind her ear, and has had a medley of basal and squamous cell carcinomas removed over the years. It makes me really aware of being sunsafe, especially since I had 5 odd moles removed before I was 25. (I was concerned, the doctor thought they were probably nothing but better safe than sorry, and took them off for me)

          • Who?

            By the time you’re my age you’ll probably be the same age you are now on the test! The years with young kids are very tough on the body.

            I probably had the same number by 25, I have one off every 2 years or so, nothing horrible yet so fingers crossed.

        • A

          Mine is… 30 at most. Cool.

          • A

            It also says that I should sleep 7 hours instead of 8, and have 2 or 3 drinks per day (what the hell?) instead of not drinking at all.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            I disagree strongly on the sleep bit, but have 2 or 3 drinks per day? Well, if it insists! I mean, it’s on the Internet, so it can’t be wrong!

        • Poogles

          76…was hoping for higher :-/

      • It’s all about how well we pick our parents. Yup.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      And if you get osteoarthritis it is from exercising too much. Sometimes you just can’t win.

    • fiftyfifty1

      “Osteoporosis? You must not have exercised enough or taken your calcium supplements. ”

      Oh how many tissues I have handed to middle aged women crying bitter tears over their poor bone density test results! They are shocked to hear that all their work keeping themselves “thin and healthy” was for naught. Actually counterproductive. Having obesity is far more protective against osteoporosis than aerobics classes or calcium supplements.

      • Who?

        I didn’t know this-my skinny friends pretty much all have osteoperosis. Do you think it’s around avoiding the dairy or just not carrying much weight around generally?

        A few of my big friends have it too-they tend to be big sugar consumers and I always put it down to that.

        I’m bmi 21-22, not skinny but lean enough and easy to maintain. Never had the density scan done, but just missed my footing in the street and landed on my two hands and knees and chin, and nothing broken, so I’m calling that a win and a passed ad hoc bone density test.

        • Mishimoo

          Ouch!! That would have hurt! So glad you didn’t manage to break anything.

          • Who?

            Mostly pride was injured as far as I can make out. Likely a bit stiff tomorrow. My husband nearly had a fit, said he couldn’t believe his eyes, one minute walking, next minute not…

        • fiftyfifty1

          “Do you think it’s around avoiding the dairy or just not carrying much weight around generally?”

          It’s the low weight by itself. It happens whether you are a milk drinker or not. Having gone through a time of underweight is especially a risk, especially if it caused loss of periods or spaced out periods, but even a plain old BMI of 21-22 is a risk (which I say as someone in that weight range myself).

          • Who?

            Interesting, thanks for that. There’s so much noise around weight, this particular aspect of low weight doesn’t get much of an airing.

  • The Computer Ate My Nym

    I actually sympathize with the urge to be fanatical about “lifestyle” quite a bit. Cancer scares me and so do heart disease, infectious disease, etc and I’m willing to do a fair amount to reduce my risk. For example, right now I’m sneezing because I read a study which showed a relative risk of about 2 for brain cancers in people who use antihistamines and brain cancer is scary. Never mind that it’s also rare and that no one’s even sure that this study applies to the nonsedating antihistamines that don’t cross the blood/brain barrier…So, yeah,I can’t claim to be perfectly rational and unsusceptable to woo and overreaction.

    But the bottom line is we aren’t completely safe from disease and we can’t be. Not without a lot more knowledge of what exactly happens to make cancer occur (not to mention other diseases). The best thing anyone can do to reduce their risk of dying prematurely is to encourage their congresspeople to increase NIH funding (or equivalent in your country). That’s the only thing that will ever really get us to a reasonable level of understanding of biology and the only thing that will ever allow any kind of safety.

    • Fallow

      Well, crap, I had no fun googling that, even with all those doctors’ caveats about how no one needs to quit taking their meds, they aren’t totally sure of the significance of the study, etc. Nonsedating antihistamines have never worked for me. I hope the fact that I undertreat my chronic allergies has left enough hideous, misery-inducing inflammation to protect my sad old brain. Not sure this is a risk factor that I can modify too much without rendering myself nonfunctional.

      • Who?

        This. I’d be a sleep deprived, mouth breathing, sneezing wreck several months of the year without my non-sedating antihistamines. A bit like tofu, I might live longer or it might just feel like it, and not in the good way.

      • The Computer Ate My Nym

        Sorry! If it’s any help, allergies of themselves actually decrease your risk of brain cancer (which is a very rare condition anyway and a lot less likely to kill you than heart disease, colon cancer, or crossing the street without looking).

        I do wonder though whether this suggests a treatment option. If antihistamines promote brain cancer, could giving histamines treat brain cancer? It’d be a, shall we say, hard to tolerate treatment but if it could be given, say, 1 week out of 6 or maybe for a couple of months and then stopped, maybe it could be made tolerable enough to live with and regress the tumor? Idle speculation, I’m afraid. No one’s ever going to do such a trial.

  • Megan

    While I agree that you cannot prevent cancer and many other diseases I worry about this kind of mentality with my patients because it is often taken to the extreme. They then say things like “well I cant prevent getting sick so why bother eating right or exercising?” And then they use that as an excuse to eat at McDonalds every day. I see this all. the. time. The fact is there are lifestyle choices that modify our risk even if we can’t prevent disease in its entirety.

    • CanIbeFrank

      I guess it goes back to the old adage, “everything in moderation.” SOMETHING is going to kill each one of us and we do what we can do prevent that “something” for as long as possible, and that’s why we exercise, eat right, etc. but that’s also why I don’t berate myself for occasionally eating dessert, cheese puffs and cute cocktails. We should do what we can to mitigate the risks but all the broccoli or green smoothies in the world won’t cure our cancer–or prevent us from getting hit by a Mack truck.

      Balance. Balance. Balance.

      • Megan

        Agreed.

      • Moderation in all things, including moderation.

      • Sue

        I’ve found, in my dealings with the “fructose is poison” zealots, that “moderation” and “balance” are taboo words.

        It seem that people who have a behavioural addiction need to invent some “poison” type of reason to control their habits. Similarly, they can blame the nutrition industry for misinforming them about fats as an excuse for drinking lots of sweet sodas.

        The truth is, those who advised reducing saturated fat never told us to replace it with sugar. Neither saturated fat nor sugar is “poison”, however – both can be within a balanced, nutritious diet, in MODERATION (there – I said the “m” word!)

        • CanIbeFrank

          That’s an interesting perspective–the behavioral addiction angle. Hadn’t thought of that before but it makes sense.

    • Gatita

      I think part of the problem is how lifestyle choices are communicated to people (not by you but by the media and public health organizations). Eating well isn’t a guarantee of anything but it does improve your odds of being healthy. It’s kind of like getting a college degree–it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a good job but it sure does improve the odds.

      Also, I think some people fall into the trap of if they have McDonald’s one time they’ve erased all of the positives of overall healthy eating and they say the hell with it, might as well go all in.

      Another issue is people linking healthy eating with weight and appearance. Even if you don’t lose weight, eating better and regular moderate exercise (marathon running not needed) reduces your risks of all kinds of nastiness like diabetes.

    • theadequatemother

      I think personally, dealing as I do with peril prestige patients that diet and exercise is important for recovery from illness and surgery. The more reserve you have the easier it is,

    • Sue

      As a population, we seem to confuse causes with risk factors. Risk factors apply at a population level, causes apply at an individual level. If you’re not exposed to a risk factor, it can’t become a cause.

      Then there’s relative risk. Aspirin can give you an ulcer but stop you having a stroke. Weight-bearing exercise has many benefits but can damage your knees. Road-running exposes us to motor vehicle pollution. But we need a balanced lifestyle – we can’t calculate the overall effect of everything we do in life.

  • Charybdis

    I find the alternate health folks wacko. Well, perhaps not all of them; stuff that “don’t do no harm” doesn’t bother me too much. For example: my husband has plantar fasciatis and wears special arch supports. There are ones that have copper in them, now that copper is the “in” thing in braces/wraps/support items right now. If he wanted some of the copper ones, I wouldn’t mind, because the copper doesn’t really do anything one way or the other, but if it made him feel better, okay. However, simply wearing the copper-infused socks is not going to improve the condition. He still has to do the stretches and take the anti-inflammatory medication for the condition to improve. On the other hand, his allergies are here to stay. No form of chiropractic treatment, cranio-sacral adjustment, course of herbs, or anything homeopathic will cure him of his allergies, no matter what woo-doo the alternative treatment people state as fact. Anecdotal evidence is not proof.

  • The Computer Ate My Nym

    No one is responsible for their cancer. Yes, smoking, drinking, a sedentary lifestyle, and not vaccinating can increase a person’s risk, but ultimately chance plays the main role.

  • Montserrat Blanco

    This is so so so true…. I see it everyday with my patients and I have experienced it myself. Yes, eating right, not smoking and exercising is good for your health and can help you to get a longer and better life but they do not cure everything nor do they prevent everything. If you do not get the right genes.. If you do no get the right healthcare… If you are simply unlucky… It happens. Everyday. Yes, thinking you can beat dead with exercise and nutrition is silly. And do not get me started on supplements.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      Supplements in the absence of an actual deficiency can be actively dangerous. Consider the vitamin A in smokers study.

      • Montserrat Blanco

        Do NOT get me started on supplements.

        There is not one single well performed study that proves that supplements will keep cancer away. In the abscence of a real deficiency they are usually harmful. And there is a BIG industry living off supplements. With zero evidence of usefulness for the most part. Big Pharma has to prove efficacy with phase III trials but they can sell their herbs and not even prove the said herb is inside the pill…

        • The Computer Ate My Nym

          I will only attempt to get you started on supplements if I see clear evidence that you have a deficiency :-).

          I agree with you. There MIGHT be some point to getting vitamin D up to high normal levels, but really the studies on that are underwhelming. It seems likely that vitamin D insufficiency (i.e. low normal range) is more a correlate than a cause of various health problems.

          • Montserrat Blanco

            I took vitamin D when I lived up very North and started feeling sad during winter. It was weird because my life in general was great. I realized I was spending very little time under the sun due to my work time table not being coincident with sunlight and symptoms got better after getting a low dose supplement. It makes sense if you have a deficiency and I am happy with that but nothing else. Of course as the doctor I am I did not get my levels tested…

          • Monkey Professor for a Head

            Typical doctor! Same here, it took me over a year to get myself tested for coeliacs after 4 of my first degree relatives got diagnosed. Although it was partly because I didn’t want to have to stop eating delicious gluten filled foods :(. At least there’s something that I can thank the pseudoscience bloggers for – the availability of gluten free foods has really gone up in the last few years.

          • The Computer Ate My Nym

            Though you do have to be very, very careful about the ostensibly gluten free foods out there: products made in a plant that also processes gluten containing foods can be cross contaminated…not enough to bother the non-specific gluten sensitive, but enough to worsen celiac disease.

          • Monkey Professor for a Head

            True. I have very minimal symptoms – no GI or skin symptoms, just fatigue. So I could be getting cross contaminated all over the place without realising it. I do worry about what damage is going on internally from it, but my TTG levels were back down to normal last time I checked so hopefully I’m doing something right.

          • Mac Sherbert

            My mom’s level of vitamin D was always really low and the doc would prescribe supplement. Never made much sense as she practically lives outside. So, finally after much insistence due to some other things she had issues with the doc ran more tests. Turns out she has a disorder that made sense out of her low vit d levels. . Once the disordered was treated her vit levels are back up. So the supplementing wasn’t really addressing the problem…

          • Sullivan ThePoop

            I have an autoimmune disorder that causes a Grave’s-like thyroid disease sometimes. When it is acting up I have very low vitamin D and very low calcium. It has never been helped by vitamin D supplementation.

          • KarenJJ

            I was chronically anaemic and iron deficient for most of my life. Iron tablets increased my iron stores a bit and helped my anaemia marginally. What ultimately fixed it was a correct diagnosis and medication to control the underlying inflammation.

          • Poogles

            Sort-of OT, but I wanna “brag” a little – I finally no longer have any vitamin deficiencies!! I did have vit D, B12 and folic acid deficiencies but my last round of blood tests showed that the supplements my doc recommended have finally brought all my levels back to normal range 🙂

    • namaste863

      That, and, let’s face it, everybody dies sooner or later. No matter if we eat healthy or exercise, or have fortuitous genes, eventually something will take us out.

      • Gatita

        But I will say that even if you don’t live longer, you are likely to be less debilitated and still able to perform activities of daily living for a longer period of time in old age. My MIL was hauling 30 pound bags of cat food right up to the last year of her life. She didn’t live longer but she had her mobility which is huge.

        I feel like there needs to be a middle message which is that healthy eating and moderate exercise will improve your quality of life and increase the odds that you will be able to care for yourself into old age but it doesn’t guarantee you anything. And stop blaming sick people for their illnesses.

        • Montserrat Blanco

          Yes, you will probably live better and that is why I recommend a healthy lifestyle to my patients. I genuinely do not think that eating vegetables, fruits, olive oil and oily fish and doing a little bit of exercise will do them much harm. But I do not blame them when they get sick nor do I say they will live to 120 if they do it. I tell them that how they behave today will set how they are in 10 years time. Apart from that when the shit hits the fan the healthy people get better outcomes.

          • Gatita

            This stuff is so complicated. I just thought of Katherin Flegal’s study demonstrating a lower risk of mortality in overweight people. That got a lot of publicity but what didn’t was a follow up analysis she did that demonstrated being overweight increased your risk of dying from some diseases (e.g., diabetes and CVD) but decreased your risk of dying from others (e.g., Parkinson and Alzheimer). When you toted it all overweight people as a whole had a lower mortality risk but of course that doesn’t tell you much about whether overweight is dangerous for a particular person.

            I’m trying to lose weight because I have a strong family history of diabetes and I really want to dodge that bullet if I can or at least have a later onset.

          • Amy M

            I’m a normal weight, but I expect I’ll end up with T2D eventually anyway—it runs in both sides of my family, though more so my mom’s side–my mom was diagnosed with it just a few years ago. Perhaps not being overweight will delay the onset—a number of the diabetics in the family didn’t get that way until their 70s or 80s. Regardless, I get my blood sugar checked every so often.

  • Amy M

    One of my huge pet peeves is people who insist that “if you only eat right, avoid sugar and think positive thoughts” you will either not get cancer, or you will be able to cure it. Essentially, they blame the cancer patient–obviously, if the patient has cancer, he/she must have done something wrong, like eat a Twinkie (aka Cancer Snack.) It’s terribly insulting.

    I get why people do this—cancer is scary and its much more comforting to believe you are immune, through your actions—that you didn’t make the same mistakes that cancer patient must have made. They seem to view disease as a punishment for failing to behave correctly. Of course, if these people actually do get cancer later on, they’ll move the goal-posts. Either they got cancer because they once ate a Twinkie when they were 5, or because “toxins” in the enviroment, put there by big pharma/big business/the government, caused it. No matter what, they can’t accept that most cancer is arbitrary.

    • attitude devant

      My aunt married into a family with a cancer gene. This was in the 1930s so the such things were poorly understood. Her father-in-law, who was a professor of biology at a big medical school had figured out that the family tree was a mess, and had even drawn up a nice little chart of several generations that made it into medical textbooks for a few decades, but (for reasons known only to himself) decided not to say anything to his children. Of my aunt’s five children, three died of cancer, one in adolescence and two in adulthood. Can you imagine? I will save you from repetition of all the stupid things I’ve heard about cancer from well-meaning fools over the years of watching my cousins die. People can be such idiots.

      • momofone

        I can relate to the cancer gene part, but can’t begin to imagine the heartbreak of your aunt’s losing her children. Of my grandfather and his eleven siblings, 9 had colon cancer (he did, too, at a relatively young age, but survived it) and one had melanoma. I was 29 when mine (colon) was diagnosed, and my mother’s was diagnosed the next year. In total, 3 of my grandparents had colon cancer and one also had breast. My maternal aunts have also had uterine and urinary cancers. I’ve had colon cancer and had bilateral mastectomies last year. My brother and I are believed to have Lynch Syndrome, though it hasn’t been officially diagnosed. My son and his cousins will start being screened (for colon cancer) as teenagers. I want to slap people when they post about the miracles of lemon juice, and how if I just drink alkaline water or sniff some essential oils I won’t have to worry.

        • Kelly

          My Mom is like this. A neighbor got throat cancer although he was young and only occasionally smoked a cigar. My Mom went down to tell him how he could cure it by taking out the alkaline or something in his blood. While I fear cancer, I fear my Mom trying to cure me worse. I have always said that if I do end up getting cancer, it is after my mother dies so she does not kill me with the “cure.”

      • Amy M

        I have a friend whose family is like this: on both her mom’s and dad’s side, cancer runs rampant. Most of them seem to get it when they are older, her father died at age 70 from cancer. But her mom had breast cancer when she was in her 30s. She survived (and had a mastectomy I think) and is still with us, but she recently had a resurgence. They caught it early and did another mastectomy and she is doing fine. Needless to say, my friend, who is only 38, has been screened for breast cancer for years now. Her parents’ generation was all born in China in the 1950s, and came to the US later….no idea if that plays any role in the cancer tendency, or if its just straight out unlucky genetics.

      • Montserrat Blanco

        If you can not change it and he probably couldn’t at the time (no good screening methods, not proven prophylactic surgeries, etc) it makes a lot of sense to don’t say anything. You would make them miserable and he knew enough genetics to know that not all of the children would have inherited the faulty genes. It makes sense (at least to me). You could have made another decission but it does make sense.

        • attitude devant

          My father, who was also a doctor, was very angry about this. When I was studying molecular genetics he spoke (privately, to me) quite a bit about it. He felt that his sister should have known what she was marrying into and had the option of NOT marrying him or of not having children. Her husband, by the way, died of cancer at a very young age, when their youngest child was a toddler being treated for retinoblastoma.

          My aunt was the loveliest person.

          • Montserrat Blanco

            It is a different point of view. I can understand both positions and I really do not know what I would have done in that case.

    • If I didn’t like my Disqus nickname so much, I would change my name to Cancer Snack.

      • The Computer Ate My Nym

        Cancer Snack could be your sock puppet.

    • Monkey Professor for a Head

      Perhaps it’s unfair, but I always get irritated everytime I read about someone’s “positive attitutude” being key to “beating” cancer. Firstly because it minimises the work done by the medical team who cared for that person and the decades of research behind their treatment, but mainly because I think it implies that those people who didn’t “beat” cancer died because their attitude wasn’t positive enough.

      I think so much of it comes down to control. You see the same thing with home birth advocates. They don’t understand science/medicine and therefore it’s scary. So they look for a magic bullet that gives them the illusion of control. If I just trust birth/take x,y or z supplement/eat this “superfood”/think only positive thoughts then nothing bad can happen, right? All those people who died, well they just didn’t do this or that right, or they didn’t try hard enough – surely that won’t happen to me?

      • momofone

        “…it implies that those people who didn’t “beat” cancer died because their attitude wasn’t positive enough.”

        I could not agree more. It’s a biological process, not a competition to see who has the best attitude. I also get sick of the “but think how much better/stronger/etc you’ll be as a PERSON when this is over.” I liked me fine before! 🙂 Or even worse, it’s called a “journey”–and you can just hear the violins playing.

        • Amy M

          Yeah, cancer builds character. 😛 I would always opt to not have cancer, no matter how good a person it might make me.

          • Smoking cures cancer and puts you in a flip-top box, too.

          • demodocus

            My aunt tells me my father was already quite the character before he developed cancer.

      • Amy M

        Exactly. I mean, if a cancer patient has a positive attitude, that’s great—but I highly doubt it increases the survival rate. A friend of mine lost his wife to colon cancer about 6mos ago–she was one of the the most positive people I ever met, and she made the best of her last years. But she knew damn well she was terminal and it was just a matter of time. I imagine its more enjoyable (for the patient and the patient’s family) if the patient can be positive, as opposed to crying under the bedcovers until death, but positive don’t shrink tumors.

        • Monkey Professor for a Head

          I’m sure that having a positive attitude helps you cope but I’m not sure it does anything to fight cancer. Also, I wonder how the emphasis on positivity in media depictions of cancer impacts on actual people with cancer. Maybe sometimes some people want or need to cry under the bedcovers, but they feel like they have to fit into this strong fighter persona that’s put out there. It’s speculation on my part, as I don’t have first hand experience with it, but I imagine it could potentially suck.

          • Amy M

            I believe, that were I in the shoes of the woman I mentioned above, I would be crying under the bedcovers until I died. I admired her ability to see the positive and enjoy her remaining life to the fullest. I think I would just get angry and depressed though. I think you have a great point though, about outward appearance of a strong fighter. This woman was leaving her husband to raise their 4 children alone—I know that she felt terrible about that, but maybe she felt that it would be easier for them if she was strong.

          • KarenJJ

            I think it helps people around them cope better if a patient is positive. I imagine for some personality types, thinking positive would be exhausting.

      • Sullivan ThePoop

        I think it is interesting how all these cancer institutes are adding integrative medicine even though research shows that using alternative therapies during cancer treatment actually decreases survival rates. That seems like marketing to me

        • Sue

          “Integrative” medicine essentially means “integrating” stuff with evidence of effect with stuff that lacks evidence. How does this make sense?

          Incidentally, I’m actively arguing for the end of the term “CAM” (“complementary and alternative”). Complementary things like massage, meditation, yoga, even aromatherapy can improve one’s sense of wellbeing during health crises – they can truly complement health care.

          On the otherhand, “alternative” cures are both deceptive and dangerous.

          No more “CAM” – there is effective treatment, complementary therapy, and non-proven “therapies”.

        • SporkParade

          I wonder if they’re doing it in order to discourage cancer patients from stopping treatment while they pursue alternative remedies.

          • Sullivan ThePoop

            Could be