Perhaps you’re reading this, book while browsing in a bookstore. If so, glance over at the guy down the aisle when he’s not looking, the one pretending to be engrossed in the Stephen Hawking book.
Take a good look at him. He’s probably not missing fingers from leprosy, or covered with smallpox scars, or shivering with malaria. Instead, he probably appears perfectly healthy, which is to say he has the same diseases that most of us have—cholesterol levels that are high for an ape, hearing that has become far less acute than in a hunter-gatherer of his age, a tendency to dampen his tension with Valium.
We in our Western society now tend to get different diseases than we used to. But what’s more important, we tend to get different kinds of diseases now, with very different causes and consequences.
A millennium ago, a young hunter-gatherer inadvertently would eat a reedbuck riddled with anthrax and the consequences are clear—she’s dead a few days later. Now, a young lawyer unthinkingly decides that red meat, fried foods, and a couple of beers per dinner constitute a desirable diet, and the consequences are anything but clear—a half-century later, maybe he’s crippled with cardiovascular disease, or maybe he’s taking bike trips with his grandkids.
Which outcome occurs depends on some obvious nuts-and-bolts factors, like what his liver does with cholesterol, what levels of certain enzymes are in his fat cells, whether he has any congenital weaknesses in the walls of his blood vessels. But the outcome will also depend heavily on such surprising factors as his personality, the amount of emotional stress he experiences over the years, whether he has someone’s shoulder to cry on when those stressors occur.
There has been a revolution in medicine concerning how we think about the diseases that now afflict us. It involves recognizing the interactions between the body and the mind, the ways in which emotions and personality can have a tremendous impact on the functioning and health of virtually every cell in the body.
It is about the role of stress in making some of us more vulnerable to disease, the ways in which some of us cope with stressors, and the critical notion that you cannot really understand a disease in vacuo, but rather only in the context of the person suffering from that disease. This is the subject of my book….