“Natural Causes” by Barbara Ehrenreich

We insist on too many pointless checkups, too many pointless surgeries and too many pointless drugs. It has become a “ritual” that doctors perform for our comfort. That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit. From San Francisco Review of Books, regarding Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich (2018)

Noted author Barbara Ehrenreich is back with a look at our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and medical ideas and crazes and procedures. The title is Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.

“In some ways,” notes Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed, “it is a book-length sequel to ‘Welcome to Cancerland,’ her unforgettable essay from 2001. There, in recounting her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, Ehrenreich’s instincts as a muckraker kept her in a standoff with what she called ‘cancer culture’: while the medical protocol left her depleted and nauseous, the New Age-tinged demands for positive thinking felt insipid and infantilizing.”

Whether we take great care of ourselves or not, many of us fail to live long lives, and in this culture “we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy,” states Ehrenreich.

Although all are potentially subject to such judgment, those with decreased financial resources—who are therefore less able to jump on health/medical bandwagons—seem to incur the most blame and shame.

Excerpted from Natural Causes (The Guardian):  

…(W)e seek an explanation…We can, or think we can, understand the causes of disease in cellular and chemical terms, so we should be able to avoid it by following the rules laid down by medical science: avoiding tobacco, exercising, undergoing routine medical screening and eating only foods currently considered healthy. Anyone who fails to do so is inviting an early death. Or, to put it another way, every death can now be understood as suicide.

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary but are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

She comes down hard on what she describes as ‘medicalized life’: the unending series of doctor’s visits, fads in wellness, and preventative-care screenings that can dominate the life of an aging person. Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

Kirkus Reviews: In summary, “[Ehrenreich] urges that we recognize that death is natural, that we enjoy our lives while we can, and that we disabuse ourselves of any self-serving notions of post-mortem permanence or even influence.”

In her mid-70’s Ehrenreich states about herself, “I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber and fats. I exercise — not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.”

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