This is not only the end of one millennium, but the end of the age of the scientific expert. For 60 years, modern medicine has reigned as the unquestioned arbiter of healthcare. All of us were willing to put our faith in medical technological advance just as we had put our unquestioning faith in science of all persuasions. Naively, we bought the notion that technology is
always synonymous with progress. We had conquered Hitler. We were on the verge of conquering space. It was only a short matter of time before we conquered microbes.
We had the arrogance to believe, 25 years ago, that scientists could invent a drug, or pioneer a surgical technique, that in itself would win the war on cancer – indeed, on all diseases.
Today, in our greater sophistication, we know better. We’ve seen too many medical mishaps, too many so-called good ideas gone wildly wrong to ever believe again that doctor knows best. We no longer wish to have drugs and surgery and better living through chemistry, and we are voting with our feet. More of our medical visits are to alternative practitioners than to general practitioners. Our message is clear: we want a new kind of medicine, a new paradigm for maintaining good health. More than ever before, we accept that we ourselves must take responsibility for achieving that goal and for controlling the conditions that will make for good health.
It is all to the good that the self-help health industry is burgeoning as a result of this change in the medical zeitgeist. However, in our human need to believe in gods and authority figures, we are too quick to kneel at the altar of a new set of experts. These are the self-help gurus, who have designed a programme (a diet, usually) which is supposed to be the definitive means of surpassing your allotted three score years and 10. Often times these programmes are based on received wisdom or fad, with very little in the way of evidence to support that it works, let alone that it’s safe.
Lately, I’ve heard the latest craze in America is a return to the high-fat no-carbohydrate diet, pioneered by a doctor guru in the States a few decades ago. Americans are going wild for this diet because it enables them to eat all the fatty hamburgers they want. How perfect. You don’t have to change a lifetime’s worth of bad habits or even give up your favourite junkfood. All you have to do is not eat the sesame-seed bun.
What nobody’s talking about are the potential dangers of this or any other extreme and faddish diet which, in this instance, places your body in a permanent state of ketosis, where it burns and must cope with the toxic byproducts of fat metabolism. It’s precisely the state you’d find yourself in if you were a malnourished child in Africa.
As our cover story this month demonstates, much of the new advice you hear about living to 100 is based on received wisdom, and not substantiated fact. Or it is the ‘expert’ opinion of some new guru, who has just written a bestselling book, but has not actually checked out the scientific evidence.
The danger of the new health revolution is placing our faith in a new god without seeing whether he also has clay feet. As with everything in health, there are no simple solutions, no miracle substances that will guarantee longevity. Health is derived from complex process of accepting responsibility for your own life, and can never be reduced to a the latest set of dietary ‘rules’.