The health stories came on like a rash last week. Kitchen sprays cause COPD, yoghurt stops heart attacks, processed food gives you cancer.
The outbreak was partly the result of the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, always fertile hunting grounds for ‘things that will kill or cure you’ stories. But the fascination of these stories for the media never seems to fade, even though they miss two big issues.
The first is, without getting too Lenten about it, we are all going to die. Every person saved from a heart attack – where rates have dropped dramatically in recent years – is one more waiting in line for cancer or Alzheimers. While dying before your time is a tragedy, the slow drawn-out processes of decline that accompany diseases of ageing are miserable too.
But perhaps more seriously these stories peddle a myth of control, suggesting that we can cheat death through our behaviour. We do, of course, know much more than we used to about the damage done to health by our own behaviour – smoking, drinking, poor diet and inactivity – as well as by environmental factors like air pollution.
But these behaviours only load the dice; they don’t determine the outcome. Bad diet, for example, is associated with about 15 per cent of deaths from cardiovascular disease, smoking and inactivity with another 10 per cent. So three out of four deaths from heart attack and stroke have nothing to do with any of these. Of course, we shouldn’t neglect health, or downplay its impact on the quality of our lives as well as the manner of their ending, but most people dying from ‘diseases of lifestyle’ are just unlucky.
There seems to be a certain ironic obtuseness in the amount of effort we put into trying to influence the one thing that is beyond our control – our mortality and its means – while neglecting the huge threats posed by climate change, or any number of social evils, which are firmly within our grasp collectively if not individually.