Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer
- Teagarden, J. Russell
- Date of entry: Aug-30-2018
- Last revised: Sep-20-2018
Barbara Ehrenreich wants to manage her health and all that is available to address various aspects of it. She makes clear that she will do the managing and has written this book to reflect on how she plans to do it. Ehrenreich explains why managing her health is necessary. She puts it this way:
We would all like to live longer and healthier lives; the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do (p. xv)
Ehrenreich doesn’t reject the project of getting longer and healthier lives per se, but she believes that what this project requires isn’t always worth the results it produces. The time and energy needed could be put towards better ends.
Like many other critics, Ehrenreich details how Biomedicine often comes up short on outcomes for all the time, effort, and money it requires from the people it serves. She covers the familiar territories of over diagnosis and over utilization of health care products and services, and goes further to suggest that many common medical practices are more ritualistic and humiliating than evidence-based and effective.
Unlike other critics, Ehrenreich takes on other activities directed at health outside of Biomedicine. She questions whether the physical fitness industry delivers on its promises to produce healthier lives and especially whether there is a net benefit based on the time and energy required from people who take it on. She crosses to the other side of the mind-body continuum when she next aims at the “madness of mindfulness” (p. 71). She finds the mindfulness movement offers more hubris than solutions.
Ehrenreich worries that the combined effects of the authority of Biomedicine, the physical fitness frenzy, and the madness of mindfulness have created a social context that treats death as something that can be avoided or at least delayed. This social context thereby implies that not actively engaging in efforts to fight off death “can now be understood as a suicide” (p. 97).
Ehrenreich offers some reasons for why these efforts to improve health and prolong life do not always produce benefits that in her view are worth pursuing to the exclusion of other activities resulting in a better life (or death). Drawing on examples from cell biology and immunology, she suggests that what is at work are disease processes too complex for the human mind to apprehend completely combined with the human impulse to simplify, which lead to practices, procedures, and prescriptions that in the best case are ineffective and in the worst case harmful.
At the end of the book, Ehrenreich laments the efforts health care professionals, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and commercial entities make to push older people into commitments for “successful aging.” Those making these efforts argue “aging itself is abnormal and unacceptable” (p. 164). This commitment requires older people to spend a lot of time in clinics, gyms, and wellness classes—“The price of survival is endless toil,” is how Ehrenreich formulates it (p. 163). She doesn’t think this price is worth what is required of people who are supposed to benefit, and advises her friends to insist “on a nonmedical death, without the torment of heroic interventions to prolong life by a few hours or days” (p. 208).
I continue to elude unnecessary medical attention and still doggedly push myself in the gym, where, if I am no longer a star, I am at least a fixture. In addition, I retain a daily regimen of stretching, some of which might qualify as yoga. Other than that, I pretty much eat what I want and indulge my vices, from butter to wine. Life is too short to forgo these pleasures, and would be far too long without them (p. 207).