In the first three months of 2011 I know two people who died, three family members who were admitted to the ICU, and I lost count of the reported aches and flu’s flying around my orb. Blame it on the harsh winter, nuclear fallout from Japan, or just plain getting older, but everywhere I go the first point of conversation seems to be an organ recital of bodily complaints. I am firmly planted in that demographic where personal health is a primary concern – eclipsing the career development and family issues that dominated earlier. As far as I can tell, I’ll stay with this group until I die.
So far I am fortunate and don’t have much to add to the conversation, unless I perceive a person receptive to the virtues of yoga, in which case I can muster the missionary zeal of a Mormon. Still it is probably no coincidence that amid all of this death and hospital visitation I read three health related books. Each describes an aspect of how our society enhances / obstructs health. Together, they form a comprehensive view for thinking about our individual well being.
T.R. Reid’s, The Healing of America: A Global Search for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care is the most cogent presentation of the dysfunctional American healthcare ‘system’ I have read. Mr. Reid, a journalist who has lived all over the world, takes his bum shoulder to a half dozen or more countries around the world, enters into their healthcare system and in the process of pursuing his personal diagnosis, observes and evaluates each system as a whole. He is offered surgery in the United States, physical therapy in France, herbal remedies in India and advice to persevere in Britain. In each case the therapeutic approach to his sore shoulder reflects the priorities of the system.
Of course, the shoulder is just a pretext for a more thorough analysis. Mr. Reid succeeds where all others fail because he takes a broad view with few judgments (except the initial judgment that the US System – which gobbles up 14% GDP and leaves many untreated – is unsatisfactory). He divides all health care systems into four categories:
Government funded universal care (Britain, United States Veteran’s Administration)
Single Payer System (Canada, United States Medicare / Medicaid)
Private Insurance (Germany, United States private insurance)
Pay as you go (India, United States uninsured)
Every other industrial country has determined that healthcare is a right and extends it to all citizens; but since the United States is unable to make that definitive statement, our system is a hodgepodge that includes all four delivery methods witnessed elsewhere. It is this hodgepodge nature that results in the inefficiencies that make our system twice as expensive yet significantly less effective than others. Our private insurance companies spend 20% on administrative costs because it is in their interest to deny payment in the hope that a ‘heavy user’ will exit the system, winding up a pay as you go patient, who then will not be able to afford to pay and eventually join the Medicaid pool (while, along the way, loose his assets and likely declare bankruptcy). In Germany, which has a 100% private insurance model, the insurers have no incentive to get someone off their books, if one company has an inordinate number of ‘heavy users’ premiums are redistributed among companies to level the load. If the US can do that among major league baseball teams, why can’t we do it to provide equitable healthcare?
The book is full of equally illuminating perspectives about how a unified system – any system – is better than we what have now as a means to provide equal access, improved public health, and more rational delivery.
Ultimately Mr. Reid’s book is a policy piece, it inspires government action but, sore shoulder notwithstanding, it does not address how we can improve individual health. Since we are what we eat, clues to that question are bountiful in Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Over the course of 500 + pages Mr. Pollen traces the origins of, prepares, and then eats four meals.
The first is a fast food meal (McDonald’s, eaten in the car, of course). This triggers an analysis of American industrial food production, which ultimately means corn, corn and more corn. The hazards of feedlot processing make a person never want to eat another McNugget, but the depth to which these amalgamated process have entered virtually every item on our supermarket shelves leaves one wondering what, if anything is safe to eat.
Next is the ‘health food’ meal purchased from Whole Foods and prepared at home. Although the food is less chemically infused than the McDonald’s meal, the compromises that a national distribution network must make in order to serve the whims of people who want every type of food all year round make the roasted chicken Mr. Pollen prepares less sustainable than the bucolic images that hover above the beautifully groomed produce at Whole Foods lead us to believe.
The truly organic meal comes from a farm in Virginia where a fascinating dance of sun and grass, vegetables and animals, all in small doses, are guided through the landscape to create a sustainable ring of food production. This is the most interesting and hopeful, portion of the book; the best endorsement for Community Supported Agriculture I have read. Mr. Pollen does not postulate how to scale this up to feed a nation of 300 million, mostly urban, citizens, but having convinced me that the existing system is unhealthy and unsustainable to us and the animals we put in our service, I appreciate the glimmer this segment offers.
The last meal, in which Mr. Pollen goes hunter/gatherer and actually kills a wild pig and gathers his side dishes, provides more fantasy than useful analysis.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an important read, though it suffers from being as overstuffed as the nation of eaters it addresses. Mr. Pollen could shed 150 pages without losing an ounce of content.
Anticancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber is the keystone book of the trilogy, fusing connections between our healthcare systems, our food, our behavior, and our individual health. Like T. R. Reid, Mr. Servan-Schreiber balances the personal with the systemic. A neuropsychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh who suffered brain cancer, the author understands each side of the healthcare world. His description of how colleagues treated him when he moved from being ‘Dr. Servan-Schreiber’ to ‘Cancer patient’ is reason enough to read the book, but there are many others.
First is the compelling case that cancer is tied to our environment and individual behaviors much more intimately than we, or the media, would like to believe. Genetic predisposition? Only a 15% risk factor in developing cancer. Smoking? Obesity? Lack of exercise? Stress? All greater risk factors.
Then he outlines in clear tables, the good and the bad. Best foods to counter cancer, worst foods to invite it in, best/worst cleaning supplies, toilet accessories, exercise regimens; you get the idea.
So, has all of this information changed my life? Not really. I have decided that money spent on better food is money well spent, so I buy more organics, even if they fall short of nirvana; my beef eating has dipped to less than three times a week; and I’ve stopped microwaving leftovers in plastic containers. But I still love my soda and rarely pass up a cookie; no guilt there.
I don’t have any of the awful cancer indicators, like smoking or obesity, so if I develop cancer or another chronic disease, it will likely be due to larger environment causes or plain bad luck. Trying to avoid that would require radical change and probably be futile; I have no intention of moving away from the city or refusing to ride in airplanes or tossing everything in my cupboard with ‘high fructose corn syrup’ on the ingredient label into the trash.
Mostly, I am absorbing this information, letting it linger, allowing my behavior to welcome the aspects that most resonate with me. I enjoy reading these books for their own sake, even when what they teach me is that our world has evolved in ways bizarre. If in the process I find tidbits that enhance my personal health, that’s just icing on the cake, which, as everyone knows, I am not inclined to pass up.