How to regenerate America’s health (6/1/12)
The Regenerative Model of Health
Health care in America is a tragedy. A system that spends 18% of its national output only to rank 50th in global lifespan is unsustainable and unacceptable.
So how did we fall into this mess?
One reason is in the very way we view health. Fortunately, we can change that.
Sickness Unto Death
The model of health and aging prevalent in the U.S. – and prevalent among health workers – is one of continuous, inexorable degeneration.
The story goes like this: your body is a machine. Given time, it will fall apart like a car or cellphone. You can change your eating habits, even try to run around a track on the weekends. Yet in the end there’s little you can do to change what will happen.
Except for one line of hope. With luck and extensive health insurance you might gain access to miraculous technology that can wipe out nasty infections, conquer cancer, and make you a new skeletal part. But the end will be the end. As Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart/the center does not hold.”
It’s evident that even the “positive” aspects of the degeneration model of health remain unappealing. The best result you can get is that with the right kinds of drugs, equipment, and technology, one can approach a state of “wellness.”
But what is “wellness?” In many ways “wellness” is to well-being what “loveness” is to love. Check standard medical terminology. By its definition, wellness means absence of disease.
Which means you have good “numbers.” You have not yet gotten the Big C, or irreparably clogged your arteries. You’ve still got some time to enjoy yourself – not too much, but some – before the inevitable collapse and decay.
One of the strange results of the degeneration model of disease is the sense it creates of personal apartness and separation. The illness, sickness, decay and destruction belongs to you. Health workers may assist you on the journey, but it’s yours alone. For the degeneration model we use today, sickness is not faced together by families, let alone communities and society, as a collective action.
You’re on your own, kid. And you know how the film ends.
This is a sad and unnecessary betrayal of how illness and sickness have traditionally been tackled. Health should be tackled socially. People aid and mourn together. We are profoundly social animals – who can get well and get healthy together.
But that’s leaping forward to the Regeneration Model of Health.
The Regeneration Model
The human body regenerates – as does the rest of biology. Things fall apart but are remade – again and again and again.
And they are never remade the same way.
Most of your body is replaced within 3-4 weeks. Though skeletal stuff remains, things get reconfigured a lot faster than many think. Most of your heart is new inside 3 days.
Quickly you become a new you. And you are never, never, never exactly the same.
The body acts as an information processing unit. You see your hair grow, your nails grow. But do you see your brain rewire and grow?
Arguably it grows and remakes itself much faster than your nails and and hair. Your brain and body update constantly. The information that comes in – most of it not conscious to you, like what viruses and bacteria have just attacked your body – is gigantic. Its your body’s job to remake that information into useful knowledge.
It turns out passive, “useless” activities like sleep are times when everything inside gets processed and rebuilt. You’re really a new you – every time you wake up.
You can’t see all that change. But you know it’s true. If the degenerative model were correct and we were just machines, we’d look and act the same at five months and five years and fifty years of age. That we don’t see all the inner changes happens in part because our brain’s desired sense of order – of willed constancy – gives us the false impression that things generally just stay the same.
It becomes part of our inner self, our personality. We like to think we really are the same from minute to month to year.
Yet ur memories are changed every time they’re retrieved. And when people are asked again decades later about significant events in their lives, they provide different answers.
Our self tells us we don’t change. Our body knows better.
Fortunately for us, it’s rather wonderful that we’re never the same.
Advantages of the Regeneration Model
Frankly, there are too many advantages – most of which have not yet become understood. But here are a few:
1. Regeneration allows you to attain a sense of real well-being – physical, mental, social and spiritual health. A body that is constantly regenerated nearly always has the chance to change – and improve. The sense of well-being that realization creates is vastly richer than the “absence of disease” wellness aimed at by the standard, degeneration model.
2. Regeneration is under your control. What you do is what you become. By your actions, you have the chance to continuously remake and update your body. The degeneration model generally only offers the hope that external forces – modern medical technology - can save you. You’re stuck. Your job is that of passive recipient – rather than as the actor who directs what happens in your life.
3. The new model includes the enormous role social and spiritual support have in making us well. It’s been known ever since Berkman and Syme’s studies from the late seventies have powerfully social support can improve health. Spiritual and cultural ideas and communities can do yet more – and make ill health easier to bear.
4. You recognize that what the body does best is adapt – change and mobilize to take on new challenges. This capacity for change can become both an enormous source of comfort and a goad to action.
5. The Regeneration model is much closer to biological reality. Much of the body’s activities are provided by proteins. By some measures, there are a billion protein-protein interactions every second – in every cell. You’ve got ten trillion cells. That provides you a lot of opportunity to remake things more the way you want. Life is fast – incredibly fast. You should use that fact to your own benefit.
6. A Regeneration View of Health is profoundly hopeful. Illness can be postponed, in some cases eliminated. The body constantly learns and adapts. No matter how physically sick you may be, there should be something you can do to improve your mental, social, and psychological health (which in turn will change your physical reality.)
7. The model recognizes that the body is always learning. In fact we learn or we die. The assaults on our immunity alone would quickly kill us – unless the immune system itself did not prove supremely artful and adaptive. Walk down a street and you will make yourself different tendons, muscles, and joints – as well as a changed brain.
8. A Regeneration model is more successful at improving real endpoints – like lifespan – than the degenerative one. The Asian American women of Suffolk County, New York, don’t survive to an expected age of 95.6 years because they have the world’s greatest health care system. It’s more because of what they do to regenerate their bodies.
9. The new model is fundamentally entrepreneurial. It allows people to recognize the greatest technology available to them – their own human body. Nothing else we use daily can can change as quickly or as powerfully. And many of the ways we can change our bodies have not been studied – even guessed at. One reason- because we have yet to use an information based, regeneration health paradigm in looking to improve what we can do.
10. The Regeneration model reconnects us with the rest of the biological world. It’s not just human beings who constantly regenerate – it’s what biology on the planet does. Go too far and any system, whether it’s your knee or an ecosystem like the Gulf of Mexico – and you can’t properly regenerate anymore. What helps save our individual and family lives can also help save the only environment we’ve got.
11.The promise of the Regeneration Model is nearly limitless. Much can be accomplished through the knowledge we’ve already gained on how people and populations remain healthy. How you eat, move, rest, socialize and integrate your day are simple ideas that can revitalize your personal and family health.
But those ideas just scratch the surface. Most of what helps our bodies and brains regenerate is presently unknown.
Because seeing our lives as part of the information revolution has remarkable advantages. We process information – just like all living things on earth.
And information is growing – rapidly.
Advances in public health will help people decide what activities they themselves can do that can make them live long and well. But those advances will go hand in hand with advances in biological sciences. Better information will allow us to marry what we do in our daily lives with the new ideas and treatments brought by on by the information revolution in biotechnology.
We will remake ourselves in new ways – just like we always do – but we will do it better. That is the real promise of Regeneration Health.
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