As I write this it is my 65th birthday, and as you may imagine I have been dealing with my own aging while observing my mother (in her 90s) who has Alzheimer’s Disease. I have had a few challenges along the way, and among them are Type II diabetes, sleep apnea, atrial fibrillation, and the beginning stage of macular degeneration. I had surgery to remove cancer in 2010, and it was completely successful. It probably sounds like I am in a state of advanced collapse, but actually I am in pretty good health. And the reason for that is simple: I have made a decision to follow the best medical advice as well as I can, and that is working.
But what do I mean by “best medical advice”? Well, it starts with my doctors (and by the time you are 65 this is almost always a plural), who tend to keep me on a short leash with checkups and tests. All of this is monitoring because I do the right kinds of things, and not interventions at this point. I have changed my lifestyle to orient it to proper nutrition, regular exercise, and doing the things that you know you should do, but often don’t. But I also like to keep up on the latest information regarding health and medicine, which can involve some small effort, in large part because there is so much misinformation around.
I start with a simple premise: good health and medical information comes from sound science. I know a lot of people, and some of them are my friends, who believe all kinds of “new age” stuff about miracle diet supplements, organic foods, anti-GMO, crystals, and all manner of other things. When presented with ideas like this, I simply say “Show me the studies.” If the information is any good at all, there will be multiple studies from highly-regarded institutions, and they will be published in reputable, peer-reviewed publications. When I have that kind of evidence I pay attention. Anything else and I may listen politely, like I would for a crazy uncle with odd political views, but I won’t act on it. I also do not show anything more than alert interest to a report of a “new study”. The fact is that a pretty high proportion of those reports will end up being “nothing to see here”. The media loves to report these things, and it is understandable because many of us love to hear about them, but there have been a number of studies showing that research results reported by one group cannot be replicated by anyone else. That is a topic we can look at in more detail later, but the point is to never act on the first study.
So, are there good sources of medical and health information for the general audience? Yes, there are, and here are some of the ones I like to use:
- WebMD < http://www.webmd.com/ > This web site has a lot of good information, and you can subscribe to a daily e-mail with tips.
- Johns Hopkins : Finding Reliable Health Information Online – This site from one of the top medical schools can guide you to a number of good places to get information.
- MedLine : Evaluating Health Information – This site has a lot of good information on how to judge whether the information you see is actually reliable. (Hint: If you read it in a Facebook post, it almost certainly not reliable).
- MedLine : Understanding Medical Research – A really awesome site for showing you how to evaluate a study or research finding. This is really important, and something we will explore in much more detail later on.
- Healthcare Triage – This YouTube channel posts 5-7 minute videos each week address a particular topic, and also do a live “viewer questions” show that is around 25 minutes long. Doctor Aaron Carroll is a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine, as well a columnist at The New York Times.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I would say that if you start with these sources you will definitely be on the right track. And when looking for good information, remember the words of Richard Feynman:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.
Making a Decision
This is the other half of the equation for getting better. You have to make a decision to act on the information you find, and for some people that is the hardest part of it. And there are definitely trade-offs involved that may be daunting to some. I plan to discuss some of the decisions I have made, and why I made them, but I have to acknowledge that some people will say to me “I could never do that.” Well, every decision has its consequences, and I made my decisions because I preferred one kind of outcome to another. In my job as a Project Manager we have a saying that “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” and I think it applies in our personal lives as well. Deciding not to take action means deciding to accept the outcomes that follow, and I didn’t want that. My father died when he was much younger than I am now, and that was due in part to decisions he made. I saw how that affected my mother and my brothers and sisters. And he probably had plans for things he wanted to do in retirement, things he would do with my mother, things he would do with his family. Well, I have things I want to do with my wonderful wife and my other family members, and I want to give myself every chance to do them. So I made my decision to use the best information I could find and change my lifestyle to make it happen.