Hitting a Nerve

Does misplaced faith in modern medicine run at odds against healthier lifestyles?


Recently, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that taking statins and blood pressure medications doesn’t lead to healthier lifestyles.

A picture of a cupcake covered with pills and tablets copyright Jeffrey Hamilton/Thinkstock

This should surprise no one practicing medicine today. With absolutely no scientific data to back up the next statement, I’m willing to bet a study on oral antiglycemics for type 2 diabetes would yield similar results.

The problem here is that these drugs don’t change human nature, and I’m not belittling their ability to reduce morbidity and mortality.

Developed nations nowadays live in a world of plenty. For most of us, there’s not only no shortage of food options, but the majority of what’s out there is the worst stuff for your health. Salty, dense calories, high-fat, sweetened – for most of us that’s a normal day of eating. It tastes good. Two million years of evolution have programmed us to eat similar stuff because in the wild it sustains survival.

In the city and suburbs, however, that’s not the case.

Food manufacturers make it and stores sell it because, quite bluntly, it makes money. The profit margin for unhealthy stuff is higher than that for fruits and vegetables. If you’re trying to run a successful business, which one would you choose to sell?

As long as people are going to eat unhealthy stuff, others will sell it to them. All the medical breakthroughs in the world won’t change that.

Same with exercise. Some people love to exercise. Some people catch the bug to do it consistently. But most try for a few weeks, usually in January-February, then give up because they don’t have time, or the will, or both.

Medical breakthroughs won’t fix that, either.

There’s also, I suspect, a component of misplaced faith in modern medicine. Like the mysterious “anti-calories” in a can of diet soda. You really do encounter people who think that drinking a diet soda and having a slice of chocolate cake will cancel each other out. Any doctor or nutritionist will scoff at this, but it’s amazing how many people think that doing one good thing (health wise) means you can equally do one bad thing at no penalty. Humans love magical thinking like that.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Unintentionally, the medications contribute to this belief. People figure if they’re lowering blood sugar or lipids, maybe they can eat more steak and ice cream. That’s an unintended consequence of modern medicine. It’s not even limited to nonmedical people. When Lipitor came to market in the late 1990s, one of my attendings called it “a license to eat.” Sadly, as the new study proves, he wasn’t that far from the truth.

People want an easy cure. A pill that makes it all better. That’s human nature. But the real problem, for all the great work we’ve done in medications, is that many patients don’t want to be an active participant in their own care. Exercising and maintaining a healthy diet are hard work, in spite of all the evidence showing their benefits (especially when combined with modern medicine, which is the whole idea in the first place). So it’s much easier for them to place all the responsibility on doctors and medications, and just take a simple pill to fix everything.

As this study shows, it doesn’t work that way.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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