I was born in 1946, year one of the baby boom. And I was born in Southern California no less, host to one of the largest and most prolific construction booms that are a hallmark of the era: thousands upon thousands of suburban tract homes in neat grid formations stretching — some might prefer to say sprawling — across warm hills and valleys as far as the eye could see.
The 1950s were truly an era of massification. Everyone wanted to be like everyone else. In our community, you wanted to own a car, you wanted to own a TV, you wanted the ability to put nice food on the table, and to take a one-week vacation each year. You wanted to fit in.
Under the sunny blue skies of mid-century Southern California, my family fit in. Our house was ordinary. Our family was ordinary. Our life was ordinary. Until, that is, we got the antenna.
My father was employed as an engineer. He had many hobbies, and when I was young my father became a ham radio enthusiast. He was delighted with the idea of being able to talk to people in Australia from our garage in Van Nuys. And so one day in the mid-‘50s, I found myself on the roof of our house — high above the clothes lines and concrete patios and kids pausing on their bikes to squint up at the sight of us — installing a very tall (about 30 feet high) antenna with my father. This was America in the McCarthy era. I invite you to imagine the rumors that swept the neighborhood.
More than five decades later, it’s just a funny story — an anecdote, a snapshot of a way of life that seemed rock solid at the time but in reality was only fleeting and temporary. But I also like to use this story as a metaphor, one that makes the case for individualism, a concept that today is more popular than massification. Before that day on the roof, I felt like I was part of a system that was very safe and predictable, a community in sync both in thought and in action. After, I discovered what it meant to stand alone, to think and act differently from others. In retrospect I can say thank goodness for that antenna.
Our generation would go on to extoll individualism in all sorts of ways. We would become known for it. And now, let’s take that metaphor and apply it to what is now our generation’s new challenge: healthy aging. I’m concerned about it. You’re concerned about it. In many ways, we are aging in a healthier manner than any generation before us. You’ve heard the quips, “50 is the new 30,” “70 is the new 50,” and to a large extent it is true. On average, people today smoke less and exercise more. Nowadays, people tend to know and monitor their personal stats: cholesterol, blood pressure, even body mass index. Public health campaigns in combination with advancements in testing methodologies and the popularity of wellness topics have made great progress in increasing personal awareness of and concern about making choices that can lead to better health. It’s a fact that people are living longer.
People are living longer, but far too many of us will spend far too much of our longer lives not wholly sick but not wholly well. Chronic disease, a constellation of conditions that rob people of their quality of life over the course of decades, is the primary growing concern of both healthcare providers and patients. But here’s the rub: there’s no one course of treatment for any of these diseases. Your heart disease is not the same as mine. Everyone with type 2 diabetes is not just like everyone else with type 2 diabetes. People with rheumatoid arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease are not all similar to others with the same diagnosis.
For many decades, medicine, like so many other aspects of American life, was concerned with treatment on a mass scale. In the second half of the 20th century, healthcare became less of a calling and more of a business. Today we refer to it as the medical-industrial complex; cost of care has skyrocketed, investment in pharmaceutical drug development has become a priority, and insurance companies now seemingly involve themselves in the daily lives of people. At the same time, over the last four decades, the comparative health status of Americans has declined at a time when we are spending more per capita than any other country in the world on health care.
We all know there’s a problem with the system: A brief yearly office visit, a prescription (or several), regular trips to the pharmacy. This may sound like a safe and predictable system for a while, but will it really keep us healthy until the end of our natural life span, which— let’s be honest —is our ideal endgame? I say no. When it comes to our personal health, is some rugged individualism the answer? I say yes. We have moved from the age of wanting to be a face in the crowd to the age of demanding to be recognized as unique individuals. Consumers are empowered. We no longer want to be treated like everyone else.
It’s time to (metaphorically) climb up onto the roof. Look at your world in a different way and know this truth: disease is not a requirement (nor is it inevitable) in your later years. At any age, we have choices about our environment, diet, and lifestyle that can influence our health patterns now and in the future.
Where and how do you start a personalized health-management program? You start with self-assessment, which can be as thorough as a genome analysis and a comprehensive work up with a physician trained in a systems biology approach to health (and if you have the means for this, I encourage it!), or it can be as basic as completing a questionnaire that will provide you with a general idea of your overall health status.
As seen previously on HUFFPOST