Maybe Medicine Isn’t the Answer

Sometime over the course of the weekend, I decided to update the news apps on my phone.  The BBC app informed me of the Battle of Libya, the Huffington Post app updated me about the political state of affairs in America, and the New York Times app was refreshed for info about science, health, and wellness.  As I perused these sources, I came across an article with this headline:

Longer Lives for Obese Mice, With Hope for Humans of All Sizes

It almost knew that I was going to read this article, and I clicked on it as quickly as possible. I’d highly suggest you read the article first, but if you’re not a link-clicker, I’ll share a quick summary of the article with you.  Scientists at the National Institute of Aging are conducting research on a drug called SRT-1720, which mimics the effects of resveratrol by activating protective proteins called sirtuins .  In the case of the obese mice in the study, this protected them from the usual diseases of obesity, increasing their life span an average of 44% longer than untreated obese mice.  (Untreated mice of regular weight still lived longer.)  Pharmaceutical companies are already jumping on the bandwagon, running clinical trials on humans using drugs closely related to SRT-1720.  The research is certainly interesting because these findings “demonstrate for the first time the feasibility of designing novel molecules that are safe and effective in promoting longevity and preventing multiple age-related diseases in mammals,” says Rafael de Cabo, the lead researcher on the study.

This is some pretty cool research, and should it result in additional studies and discoveries, we should certainly see some lives saved and premature deaths prevented.  But that’s where I have some issues with this path of thinking.  The application of this research to humans, the one that the pharmaceutical companies are the most interested in, would be to reduce the prevalence of obesity related disease in obese subjects.  Certainly necessary, but wouldn’t it be smarter to invest time and energy in reducing the prevalence of obesity in the first place?

Obviously, there are billions of dollars being spent to reduce the prevalence of obesity in our country, and I can’t pretend that we don’t need this research.  While the research is being done to improve longevity, I’m sure that some of our less-motivated peers will see this line of research as a potential get-out-of-jail free card.  From the Times article:

“The drugs could be used as a preventative to stave off diseases, but I don’t think they will ever be an excuse to abuse your body,” said David Sinclair, a biologist at Harvard Medical School and co-chairman of the scientific advisory board of Sirtris, which developed SRT-1720.

Am I just being a pessimist, assuming that this will become an excuse for a lifetime of poor health related choices?  Sure, it’s possible, but I’d rather live a healthy lifestyle without relying on Pfizer and Friends to keep me alive.  Pharmacology is an important field, and I’m grateful to not worry about Polio, to have a Z-Pak when I’m sick, and to know that we’re getting better every day at treating terrible diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS.  Unfortunately, most of the diseases that kill us are largely preventable, and we should be looking to prevent them in the first place instead of treating them once they take hold of the body.  Sure, there are implicit health reasons for this, but there are also some financial ones.  Having control of a dibilitating disease certainly sounds nice, but doesn’t it sound better to not have the disease in the first place?

I understand that an argument against this research would be as stupid as arguing that accessible birth control leads to promiscuity.  Not the case, it simply keeps those safe who happen to make those choices.  Yes, I’m sure most people would rather not put themselves in situations that risk their health, but if they can be kept healthier or safer in those positions, why not?

Back in April, Mark Bittman wrote THIS piece for the New York Times, How to Save a Trillion Dollars.  He discusses the cost of treating disease states versus the cost of preventing disease states.  If you’re wondering how much man-made disease costs us, these numbers should blow you away.

  • Costs in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death here and in much of the rest of the world — will triple by 2030, to more than $800 billion annually.
  • Type 2 diabetes is projected to cost us $500 billion a year come 2020, when half of all Americans will have diabetes or pre-diabetes.
  • The National Institute of Health pegs obesity-related costs at about $150 billion.
  • Dr. David Ludwig, a Harvard-affiliated pediatrician and the author of “Ending the Food Fight,” says, “The magnitude of the deficit is small when you consider costs of nutrition-related disease; the $4 trillion that the Republicans want cut over a decade is about the same as the projected costs of diabetes over that same period.”

$4 trillion dollars over a decade.  That budget cut would be monstrous, and to think that that’s the cost of nutrition-related disease, which we’ve mostly caused on our own.  Curiously, at the Iowa State Fair last week, one of the treats being sold was a stick of butter deep fried in a honey and cinnamon batter, with icing on top.  So much for achieving a budget cut by reducing the prevalence of manufactured disease.

If you’re reading a blog about health and fitness, then I think it’s safe to say that you do make informed decisions to maintain and improve your health and wellness.  For that, I offer both congratulations and a big thank you!  Pharmaceuticals can play a big roll in preventing death, and reducing the impact that various disease states have on our health.  They stop you from getting worse, but I’m not quite sure that (in the long run) they make us better.  For that, we need to choose the right foods to eat, commit ourselves to proper exercise, and make lifestyle decisions that improve our health, for months, years, and decades to come.  I’ll leave you with two great quotes that I enjoy, relating to medicine and overall health.

Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states. ~Carol Welch

A man’s health can be judged by which he takes two at a time – pills or stairs.  ~Joan Welsh

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One Reply to “Maybe Medicine Isn’t the Answer”

  1. To quote Dr. David Saul. “Good heath makes a lot of sense, but not a lot of dollars.”
    I just finished watching the the movie. “Dying to know the truth” about Gerson therapy, a great movie, and very much along the same lines of thinking.

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