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The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

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Surely most of us have reached a sort of COVID coverage fatigue “tipping point” over the course of the last few months, where the last thing anyone wants is to mindlessly scan another data point laden article discussing vaccines, community spread, etcetera. What I’m looking to do in this post, however, is a bit different and will require both realism and optimism from the reader. I want to pose a question that I admittedly don’t know the exact answer to, but nonetheless I think is a critical one to ask. This question is also bound to make some uncomfortable, and I’ve struggled with deciding exactly when the appropriate time is to ask it. There has been so much global disruption, turmoil, and despair, and the last thing I want to do is come across as callous and “tone deaf”, but I think it’s time to identify the elephant in the room.

Why are We So Susceptible to Disease?

Since we started learning about which populations were the most likely to encounter adverse reactions to COVID-19, or at worst, death, some things have become clear. Age and underlying medical conditions (some unavoidable, but most preventable to some degree) are perhaps the two biggest canaries in the coal mine for suffering not only adverse reactions to COVID-19, but ALL infectious disease. Obviously, we cannot control our age in a chronological sense, unless the earth encounters an exponential source of additional gravity (relativity joke, a bad one). We can, however, control to a certain extent our susceptibility to infectious disease by addressing those underlying medical conditions.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that I write this from the point of view that our ability to control the onset of those underlying medical conditions is only partially within our actual control. There are genetics, epigenetics (environmental impacts on gene expression), social/cultural constructs, and literal entropy within one’s living situation, so, exactly what percentage of one’s health is in their actual control could be debated until the end of time. Obviously, there should be a certain amount of personal responsibility involved in each person’s life, but just how much one can attribute health outcomes to any of the aforementioned contributing factors probably comes down to how much that person believes they have attained whatever health status through their own hard work and dedication.

Personal responsibility aside, the prevalence of preventable cardiometabolic maladies needs to be addressed on a societal level. It’s easy for a healthy person to pointlessly project recommendations like “start exercising, eat more vegetables, sleep eight hours a day, manage your stress better” but really, what good does that do anyone but the person making those recommendations? Admittedly, through my professional experience, I have been guilty of giving these recommendations sometimes without concrete action steps to take or resources to utilize. 

Challenge is Important, But so are Resources

I think, perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to most people’s desires to make positive change, is that several components of one’s everyday life are seemingly rigged against them. Whether it is physical locations of fresh produce, the addictive qualities of engineered food (more crunch, more salt, more fat, more sweet), or a lack of education as to what is actually healthy, so much of what we encounter everyday makes it extremely challenging to make positive change from a health standpoint. I love America and I love capitalism, but exploiting innate human frailties to maximize profits feels wrong. Overcoming adversity is about as American of a concept as they come, but asking someone to overcome adversity without any resources seems like a tough request. Whether it is education, opportunity, genes, money, or family, a percentage of everyone’s success depends to a certain extent on those resources. Just what exactly that percentage is probably varies from person to person, and I’m not writing this claiming to know what those values are.

We all are human, and have the tendency to overestimate just how much of our success in life was from our own hard work and determination. Bringing this conversation back to one of health and wellness, those of us enjoying a life without the aforementioned underlying conditions are probably just as likely to attribute a higher percentage of that reality to a lifetime of healthy eating, exercise, and hard work. I don’t mean to undermine anyone’s early morning workouts, dedication to consumption of fruits and vegetables, or ability to sleep through the night, but what I do want to do is to create an open dialogue about how we can better position resources for those working against things that are not in their control. I’m a proponent of hard work, pushing through obstacles, and growing from them, but one must have some resources to pull from, especially as a developing child.     

“Uncomfortable experiences are not necessarily bad, and protecting the people from them shows a lack of respect for the integrity, nature, and future development of the person”

Scott Barry Kaufman (Psychologist and author of “Transcend”)

Same Input, Same Results

I’m not sure exactly what change needs to happen, or even at which levels those changes would be most beneficial, but I do know that if we keep going through the motions, we’ll more than likely have the same steady growth of rates of obesity and cardiometabolic disease, until…what? Unfortunately, I can envision an America in which there is a smaller and smaller percentage of healthy people having to pay increasingly larger insurance premiums to help offset a majority of Americans living with a very expensive malady that may or may not be one hundred percent their “fault”.

That being said, I can also envision an America that slowly makes changes at various levels, slows the rate of increase and eventually sees a decrease of both preventable cardiometabolic diseases and people (young and old) being asked to make positive change without resources to do so. What those changes look like, whether it is more education, increased access to fresh produce for families, or more opportunities for exercise, is anyone’s prediction. Right now, we are a country battling the acute problem of COVID-19, but also the chronic problem of a huge percentage of our constituents being susceptible to diseases like that in the first place. Without the necessary resources to overcome the bad luck of being born into a family with a history of high cholesterol, diabetes, addiction, or lack of wealth, we can continue to expect the same results the next time something like this happens.

I wish it were as easy as just “work hard” or “get tough”. Yes, personal responsibility is absolutely important and integral to growth, but no matter how much you preach hard work and grit, a plant still needs water, soil, and sunlight to thrive. Take care of yourself, and if you have the available resources, help take care of someone else.

Yours in Wellness,