The Boring Preventive Health Rhetoric We Need

Here is Dr. John Schumann in a recent NPR article on preventive health:

In spite of all the science and technology in medicine, what we doctors do is more about making educated guesses. Especially in primary care, it’s often a matter of playing the probabilities more than providing precise diagnostic information.

But prevention is different. We know a lot about it, based on huge bodies of epidemiological research. Most of prevention is fairly straightforward. You’ve heard the advice again and again. In fact, the repetition may make it easy to tune out.

Unfortunately I believe he’s right. Common preventive health advice—get more sleep, move around, eat your broccoli, visit with people, express gratitude on a regular basis—is so dull and obvious that no one cares to listen to it, much less follow it. As tech savvy consumers, we’re more attracted to the “latest thing”: the latest study or self-help book, which then recommends the latest plan, product, or technique for getting healthier faster.

Eat less processed food and more veggies? Huh, I hadn’t thought of that before.

Os Guinness does a good job of diagnosing our consumerist propensities in his book on persuasion: “Just as to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail, so in the age of science and technology, everything is a scientific and technical matter to be solved by scientific and technical means. […] Tied in together with the myth of progress, what we are offered is the eternal promise that the next new, new thing will always be better” (pp. 31-32).

Schumann appears to resist that trend, insisting instead on time-honored behaviors that are simple to grasp and accessible to the average person. There are no shortcuts in his proposal, no special techniques, just mundane day by day decisions that take good old fashioned time and discipline to get right. Despite how old and repetitive the advice is, I think it’s precisely the kind we need, even if it’s the kind that we find so boring.

Interesting side note: Schumann notes that one of the reasons that certain communities around the world see above-average longevity is lots of *intergenerational* social interaction. When is the last time you thought, “Gee, I should hang out with my crazy family and other people who aren’t my age because that will increase my lifespan”?

Alas, Dr. Schumann doesn’t unpack the phrase, so I don’t entirely know what it means. From my experience as a father and member of a large family, my guess is that relating to others in various seasons of life forces you to think and act differently than when you’re around your homogeneous group of friends; and those differences in turn cause you to flex your imagination and emotional capacity in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. And surely a healthy family environment (one with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents reaching across generational lines to share life together and exchange wisdom) can bestow feelings of safety and belonging that contribute to better health.

To get more informed, I searched for more articles on the topic, with mixed success. For example, Intergenerational potential: effects of social interaction between older adults and adolescents has a promising title and no doubt some intriguing findings, but the scientific jargon is beyond my comprehension. Interestingly, when I followed Schumann’s link to more information on “Blue Zones” (the term for the healthy communities he mentions), the marketing material conveys a strong “Here’s a recipe for happiness!” message that seems to undermine the no-shortcuts approach Schumann is espousing. But hey, that could be a hasty judgment.

Anyways, go take a walk and eat some carrots! And if you’re reading this and happen to know of a good resource on the health effects of intergenerational social interaction—written in terms that are a little plainer than a PhD dissertation—pass it along and let me know.

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