Junkfood Science: Wellness can be a state of mind

November 12, 2007

Wellness can be a state of mind

Today’s article in the Daily Mail illustrates the heartbreaking distress that comes to young people from being surrounded by today’s nonstop health news and pervasive preoccupation with health and “wellness.”

As we’ve covered here, even little kids, before they’re old enough to read or ride bicycles, are being taught to worry about their weight and what they eat, purportedly to prevent adult diseases of aging. The good news — that we’re enjoying unprecedented levels of good health and our food has never been safer — doesn’t receive nearly the same attention, if it’s even reported at all. Instead, the modern climate of unease has left growing numbers of perfectly healthy young people fearing their foods, feeling anxious about their bodies and worrying over every health indice. Not only does this take away from their sense of well-being and enjoyment of life, it makes many believe they might be or are ill and leads them to seek needless tests and remedies for nonexistent health problems. And it’s terribly hard to help them, because no amount of reassuring information is often ever enough to move past fear.

Anna Hodgekiss writes:

Are health check-ups bad for you?

Britons spend millions on screenings and testing kits for peace of mind about their health. But experts fear there's a hidden cost... Charlotte Dorman is, she says, a typical 28-year-old.... [She] spends up to £1,000 a year on medical tests she doesn't actually need. She isn't ill, but as the PR manager from South-West London explains: “If I didn't have the checks, I'd feel I wasn't really in control of my health.” As well as regular blood tests for anaemia, thyroid function, and hormone levels, she has her spine checked every three months for potential problems as well as her levels of vitamins and minerals. She has also paid for stomach screening a mammogram and fertility tests, and plans to start having a full body scan once a year from the age of 30.... “I don't want to be ill in 20 years' time,” she says....

Britons now spend a staggering £99million a year on DIY diagnostic kits (home-use tests that can ‘detect' diseases such as diabetes), a rise of 30 percent over the past five years....More people than ever are now undergoing CT and MRI scans. Once the preserve of patients with serious illnesses such as cancer, these scans can cost up to £3,000 a time, yet companies that offer them report a major surge in demand. Some experts are worried that these health tests are causing unnecessary anxiety — a health problem in itself. They are also concerned that the tests can lead to people having further investigations they don't need, and that these tests also pose an unnecessary risk....

A large percentage of Americans frequenting clinics and hospitals are those whose anxieties have reached extremes, too. These worried well see doctors more often and account for up to one-third of all primary care visits and have healthcare costs 14 times higher than average. This strain on healthcare costs and resources is seldom mentioned but, according to Steven Locke, M.D., a Harvard Medical School psychiatric researcher, an estimated $30 billion annually is spent in unnecessary medical costs resulting from healthy people who fear being sick or believe they’re at risk. As the Daily Mail goes on to explain:

Part of the blame lies with health promotion campaigns - and the growing phenomenon of 'awareness' weeks, [Dr Michael Fitzpatrick] says. “With last month's breast cancer month, for example, you have girls in their teens and 20s coming to see you, terrified that they have it, when there's more chance of them being struck by lightning.”

The availability of information is also fuelling this anxiety, says Professor Michael Hyland, a professor of health psychology at the University of Plymouth. “We have always been a nation of worried well, but now technology means we have a lot more access to information about disease that only medics had access to previously - and people worry about it.”

Younger patients in particular are becoming ‘health obsessed', says Dr Fitzpatrick. “In the past ten years, the number of fit and healthy 25-year-old men demanding a “full health check-up" has soared - but they need nothing of the sort,” he says. “They should be enjoying themselves, not testing their cholesterol.”

But today, our very concept of what it means to be healthy has been affected by concerns over health risk factors and the feeling we must be continually diligent about following our health indices. Rather than realize that most of us are healthy most of the time and only occasionally get sick and then get better again; it’s become widely believed that healthy people need regular medical attention and constant diligence to stay well because we’re all at risk. Additional insights from Dr. Fitzpatrick, a general practitioner in Hackney, London and author of The Tyranny of Health— doctors and the regulation of lifestyle, and health risk factors were discussed in an earlier post.

The Daily Mail article goes on to provide important precautions for consumers about the quality of home testings and how they only encourage further preoccupations with health that aren’t healthful. “Personally, I wouldn't do any of this sort of testing or screening - it's unnecessary. These companies are feeding off people's anxieties and making a vast income from something of dubious value,” Dr. Fitzpatrick told the Daily Mail.

Bigger shams are unnecessary MRI and CT scans, such as those whole body scans that are being marketed both in the UK and in the U.S. — not for people having any symptoms warranting such tests, but supposedly to put the minds of healthy people at ease. The problem is, people are often left more worried, or the scans pick up little irrelevant abnormalities that would never have endangered their health or caused them any notice. Those often lead to more needless tests. Her entire article, here, is worthwhile reading.

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