As a 12-year old Florida school boy, I was introduced early to the 16th century Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, whom legend says came to Florida in quest of the Fountain of Youth. Drink or bathe in its waters and you could be young again. A story-line like this isn’t unique, finding its replay in myth and legend throughout the world.
Its insistence doesn’t surprise us at all, since it mirrors our consummate dream to stay young, not for its own sake, but because we associate youth with beauty, vigor, and libido, or from another angle, the absence of chronic ills like coronary disease, cancer, arthritis, and God only knows what, that often define our later years. All the parts are new and they work well and at 25 we may sometimes think ourselves immortal. We dream not just ordinary dreams, but visionary ones that say I can and I will.
Sooner or later, we are all Ponce de Leon, clutching to “the splendors in the grass” (Wordsworth). Our ads promulgate our folly with promised effulgences of youth’s attributes, abolishing gray, dissolving winkles, restoring passion.
But even medicine itself increasingly wanders into the Ponce de Leon camp these days, some doctors proffering we may soon banish the ills of our human sojourn, advancing our life span dramatically into the 100 year range what with the promise of genetics making individualized therapies possible, perhaps a pill as it were targeting your specific ill, say cancer.
This is pretty much the message of Dr. David Agus’ fascinating The End of Illness, sort of what we do now at the car shop or electronics outlet, plugging into a computer that in seconds spits out solution. He tells the story of 44-year old Bill Weir, host of ABC’s Nightline, who volunteered to go live, or cameras rolling in prime time, as the newest medical technology imputed his medical data at USC University Hospital.
It was the whole works, including not only blood tests and CT scans, but DNA analysis to assess his hereditary risk for illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer and about 32 other disease scenarios. A CT uncovered substantial calcium build-up in Weir’s coronary arteries, narrowing his arteries and portending a possible heart attack in the next several years. He had seemed a very healthy man until testing found him out.
The point is that we can increasingly predict and find impending diseases, and employing intervention therapy, reduce if not eliminate, their threat. Because of the high expense, sounds to me like you want to make sure you and your loved ones have the best possible medical coverage. In the end, prevention may well be less costly than treating a patient with cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Here I agree with those in Agus’ camp. Take those prescribed pills, undergo the recommended testings, etc. Consider pancreatic cancer, for example, a disease that takes no prisoners and recently killed actor Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, and Apple’s Steve Jobs. It’s an insidious illness that manifests its symptoms when it’s usually too late. Still, you can undergo an annual complete abdominal ultrasound, MRI, or CT and gain a chance to nip the culprit in the bud.
But do I think medicine in the next 25 years will largely eliminate illness? I will only say I think the jury’s still out on this one, though I’m doubtful. There is the expense; human inertia; new diseases in an increasingly global village appearing, impervious to our best antibiotics and the lengthy interval in developing new ones. Even Agus contradicts his own optimism in predicting the inevitability of a pandemic:
The swine flu scare that occurred in 2009 will someday be dwarfed by a real epidemic that will spread rapidly through virgin immune systems and kill millions in its path (as happened, for example, in the flu epidemic of 1918, when an estimated 50 million to 100 million people died) (p. 277).
And I think the title of his book extravagant. It may spawn sales, but little else, for fragile beings that we are, fraught with mortality, we share the fate of all living creatures, governed in the end by entropy. We will never arrest illness completely, though we may at times lessen its impacting, and even its timing, by employing health enhancing strategies that will also lend quality to our lives.
At present, the American medical establishment is in breakdown mode. While heart disease has shown a decrease, cancer continues to plague us. Apart from disease, our doctors kill up to 200,000 patients yearly by way of medical mistakes; 50 million of us have no insurance; 25 million of us are underinsured. Meanwhile, our unhealthy lifestyle continues to menace both our health and our wallets. We have more diabetics than ever, for example. Many of us are just plain fat.
I’d like to continue this subject in a later post and tell you things you can do specifically to help safeguard the health of yourself and loved ones, though I can’t promise you centenarian status. Only 1 in 20,000 achieves that!
- Project 365/212 – The Fountain of Youth (bellaremyphotography.com)
- The Fountain of Youth Is in Florida and It’s Radioactive (gizmodo.com)