It’s human nature to want to minimize or deny uncomfortable or bad news. This is especially true when it comes to news about our health.
I have family and friends who refuse to go to the doctor for an annual physical, claiming a lack of time or that they are not sick despite having frequent headaches or being told they have high cholesterol or blood pressure. We tend to deal with bad news about our health somewhat like the model called “The Five Stages of Grief,” developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. One of these five stages of grief is denial, and we tend to enter the stage of denial when it comes to information regarding our health.
Denial usually involves minimizing, rationalizing or qualifying the bad news. This is why we hear people say things such as “I have a touch of diabetes,” “I am lucky, I have good genes,” “The test results were not that bad,” or “I’m in excellent health for my age.”
The reality is that you either have diabetes or you don’t (much like a woman can’t be a “little pregnant”), good genes can only help so much, test results are objective and you either are in good health or you aren’t.
Genetic testing has made it easy to determine whether we have “good genes.” And for many of us, once we determine that we have good genes we might conclude that we can eat unhealthily, not focus on physical activity and still remain healthy. This approach may be detrimental to our health. People with “good genes” do get sick.
For example, not having the BRCA gene mutation does not mean a woman will not get breast cancer. It just means that she has a lower risk and, therefore, should continue to be proactive with screenings. Similarly, someone with a family history of low cholesterol who also has low cholesterol has a lower risk of having high cholesterol. However, if they smoke, consume a high cholesterol diet and perform limited physical activity, they will increase their chances of having high cholesterol.
Remember, the good gene concept originated as part of an evolutionary theory based on the idea that males project certain qualities that help convince a potential mate that his genetic make-up would increase the probability that any children with him would thrive and survive in a dangerous and hostile world. It really had little to do with how well you take care of yourself despite your good genes.
Another trend that can muddy the waters when it comes to how healthy we really are is confusion between an objective test result and how that result is interpreted. There has been a lot in the news recently about coronary calcium scans, a diagnostic test that many people may not have ever heard of. We discussed these scans earlier.
Briefly, a coronary calcium scan takes a CT scan of your chest to detect calcium. The presence of calcium, detected on these special CT scans, can mean that you are likely to have atherosclerosis or clogging arteries. Clogged arteries may lead directly to a heart attack.
Because your blood vessels do stretch, a little calcium doesn’t mean you’re going to have a heart attack tomorrow. However, at some point, all those pizzas and hamburgers get to be too stressful on your arteries, and real narrowing of the blood vessels can happen.
Like most diagnostic tests, there are clearly identified and generally accepted parameters for determining what the results mean. In the case of a calcium score, 0 means there is no calcium build-up in the heart and, therefore, there is no calcium-related heart disease. A score from 1 to 99 is mild heart disease, 100 to 399 is moderate and above 400 is severe. These are objective results that no doctor will debate much like none will debate a positive pregnancy test or a biopsy that shows the presence of cancer. As the saying goes, “it is what it is.”
The risk to our health comes with how these results are interpreted (both by the doctor and patient) and how they are used for determining a treatment plan. You or your doctor may downplay the significance of a calcium score of 130, which is at the lower end of moderate disease and is around the 46th percentile. You could easily argue that the results are “not that bad” since more people have worse scores and “if it were really that bad, they would have ordered an angiogram.”
This approach may minimize the true risk of the disease and allow the patient not to take the results as seriously as he or she should. Let’s say that your doctor tells you to cut out fried foods, but a friend with a similar score is given statins (medicine to reduce cholesterol). Think of how easy it would be to say – and convince yourself – that if your situation were that bad, you would have been given medicine as well. Rationalizing or telling yourself and others what you want to be the truth does not make it the truth. Nor does visiting “Dr. Google” until you find something that validates what you want to believe about your diagnosis.
So how can you be proactive about not denying your health issues?
In addition to doing your part in being honest with yourself about your healthcare issues and needs, you also need to be the best partner you can with your healthcare provider. To help you do this, here are some tips on how to have an intelligent discussion with your doctor about your test results or other medical issues:
- Read. Read the boring medical studies that pertain to your medical condition, and read blogs and websites that make a point of using scientific evidence (like phlabs.org!).
- Ask Specific Questions…
- Are there alternatives to the treatment plan you are recommending?
- Are there side effects from the medications you are prescribing? What are they, and how can I minimize them?
- What nutrients will those medications take from my body?
- If I’m prescribed two or more medications at once, is it safe and effective to take them all together?
- If I take over-the-counter (OTC) drugs with my prescription drugs, will this make a difference?
- Will my diet have an impact on the medications prescribed?
These questions will generally convey your concerns more clearly and open up a discussion, as opposed to only saying, “I don’t want to do that.” Instead of saying, “I don’t like prescription medications,” try being more specific by saying, “I’d really like to try taking yoga classes three times a week. If I still feel depressed, I will try the antidepressants.”
- Ask your doctor for a comprehensive nutritional test. As you age, your body is usually not as efficient as it used to be and you are likely to be deficient in many of the nutrients necessary to keep you healthy. For example, certain nutrients play a role in preventing clogged arteries. You will not obtain a good proportion of your nutrients from junk foods, like pizza, hamburgers and shakes. So it may be necessary to identify other foods you may need, such as fruits and vegetables, to be healthy. And remember, prescription drugs may work but they do rob the body of important nutrients so it is necessary to have a discussion with your doctor regarding how you can replace those nutrients.
Unfortunately in today’s world, truth and facts continue to become more and more relative, which makes it easier for us to not take health issues as seriously as we should. This can lull us into a false sense of security, which can either delay our taking steps to address our health issues or convince ourselves that we really don’t need to do anything at all. Doing either can greatly increase our risk for serious disease or reduce the chances of a speedy and positive treatment outcome.
While it may be more comfortable to sugar coat health risks, this is one time where being as honest and objective as you can be is in your best interests. Your health depends on it!
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.
Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (www.phlabs.org), a national nonprofit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. She also is founding and managing partner of Stephenson Acquisto & Colman (www.sacfirm.com), one of the nation´s leading health care law firms. Her most recent book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores. She is based in California.