Weekday death

There is nothing quite like having a colleague die at his desk to focus one’s mind.  weekday_deathFirst, you gasp – Whaaatttt?  I just had a meeting with him yesterday!  I have an e-mail from him in my in-box!  Then you exhale and realize just how close life’s edge really is.

A heart attack took him at age 60 something, so his death becomes evidence for the “prevention saves lives and money” argument.  But was it truly preventable?  Consider these other factors:

  • Working in a low-control job is an accurate predictor of having and dying from heart disease, even more so than how much exercise a person gets or how many vegetables he eats.  It’s also a predictor of death from any cause at younger ages.
  • Chronic stress increases the level of cortisol hormones circulating in the body, which is linked with poorer physical health.  Yes, endorphins from exercise combat some of this but far from all.  It’s not as if you could leave your stressful job every day, go run a few miles, eat a vegan dinner, and have great health.  The next morning, you’re back at your stressful job all over again.  Likewise for your stressful home life, which is even harder to escape.

A heart attack or heart disease in general comes not just from lack of exercise or lack of proper nutrition.  It comes from a thousand things that do not fit into the prevention rubric.  The prevention rubric puts illness entirely in the individual person’s world, but in reality, almost no illness — certainly not heart disease — can be cured by the simplistic intervention of eat-more-vegetables-do-more-sit-ups.

In other words, illness is not entirely person-centric.  Illness is the product of human relationships, activities, conversations, exchanges which then influence the biological processes of the body.  Everything that we do or think or experience imprints on us, all the way down to our cells.  Furthermore, we do not understand what brings about many diseases (think: cancer) though we may have treatments for them.

Over-focusing on biological inputs ignores the broad spectrum of human life, reduces us to a bag of bones.  It’s much more complex than that, and the prevention frame does a disservice by implying we could all live longer and better by doing x, y, or z to our bodies.

The bottom line is we lost a colleague, a person who spent day after day with us, drinking coffee, making jokes, complaining about the weather, answering questions.  He will be sorely missed.

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