Why Health Care Works Better Than Disease Care


This post is part of our forum on David H. Freedman's July/August story, "The Triumph of New Age Medicine." Follow  the debate here.

Many people tend to think of breakthroughs in medicine as a new drug, laser, or high-tech surgical procedure. They often have a hard time believing that the simple choices that we make in our lifestyle--what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much exercise we get, and the quality of our relationships and social support--can be as powerful as drugs and surgery, but they often are. Sometimes, even better.

The effectiveness of these "alternative" approaches can be often documented in just the same way as conventional medicine. As David H. Freedman writes in his Atlantic article, "The evidence that these lifestyle and attitude changes have enormous impact on health is now overwhelming." 

Fix or Fraud?

In our research, my colleagues and I at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute used high-tech, state-of-the-art measures to prove the power of simple, low-tech, and low-cost interventions. We showed that integrative medicine approaches may stop or even reverse the progression of coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and other chronic conditions. We also published the first randomized controlled trial showing that these lifestyle changes may slow, stop, or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer, which may affect breast cancer as well.

Our latest research showed that changing lifestyle changes our genes in only three months--turning on hundreds of genes that prevent disease and turning off genes and turning off oncogenes associated with breast cancer and prostate cancer as well as genes that cause heart disease, oxidative stress, and inflammation. We also found that these lifestyle changes increase telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live. Even drugs have not been shown to do this.

As Freedman's article points out, our "health-care system" is primarily a disease-care system. Last year, $2.6 trillion were spent in this country on medical care, and 95 cents of every dollar were spent to treat disease after it had already occurred. Heart disease, diabetes, prostate/breast cancer, and obesity account for 75 percent of health care costs, and yet these are largely preventable and even reversible by an integrative medicine program of comprehensive lifestyle changes. 

The choices are especially clear in cardiology. In 2006, 1.3 million coronary angioplasty procedures were performed at an average cost of $48,399 each, more than $60 billion; and 448,000 coronary bypass operations were performed at a cost of $99,743 each, more than $44 billion--i.e., more than $100 billion for these two operations. 

Many people are surprised to learn that randomized controlled trials published in The New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere showed that angioplasties and stents -- common surgical procedures used to treat heart disease -- do not prolong life or even prevent heart attacks in stable patients (i.e., at least 95 percent of those who receive them). And coronary bypass surgery prolongs life in less than 2 percent of patients who receive it. 

Presented by

Dean Ornish, M.D., is the founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. His research studies were the first to demonstrate that lifestyle changes can reverse cardiovascular disease without drugs.

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