Playing the Health Odds

If every time we did something that would bring eventual harm to ourselves, to society or to the environment, we were given a convincing jolt of electric shock, most problems facing humanity would be almost instantly solved. But that’s not the way things are. Other than sticking our hand in a fire or falling off a cliff, or similar easy lessons in living, most choices require intelligent foresight, a measure of potential consequences perhaps far into the future.

Therein lies our problem. We like to cheat, are lazy, pleasure-for-the-moment driven, too clever with alibis and excuses and particularly good at self-justification. We continue whatever suits our fancy until eventually we are sufficiently harmed, or the contrary evidence becomes so overwhelming that we change due to the brute force of public opinion.

Although cigarette smoking, industrial smog, water pollution, radiation, toxic gases emitted from modern construction materials, and sedentary living are all proven to cause harm, even grievous life-threatening harm, they continue because immediate ill effects do not occur, or change would mean inconvenience or sacrifice. Then there is Uncle Josh, who is now a robust ninety-four, and yet has smoked a cigar, chewed tobacco and swigged whiskey since he was sixteen. There is the brother-in-law who works in the nuclear plant and has never developed cancer. There is the classmate you saw at the recent reunion who doesn’t exercise, watches virtually every soap opera and eats pounds of chocolates every week but yet looks more trim and fit than you in spite of your tofu and jazzercise. Or how about the NBA All-Star who eats greasy fast foods, additive-laden soft drinks, and candy bars? Using such logic to justify poor life choices is like pointing to people who drive drunk habitually and have done so for decades without ever getting in a wreck. Just because people can escape immediate harm does not mean such a course is wise and that the odds are not against you.

Here is an even better rebuttal to this myopic view of life choices. The medical image here is a computed tomographic scan of the head of an inebriated man admitted to the hospital. In the side view, note an approximately 2” nail embedded in the back part of the skull. In the front view, see that this nail is in the center of the brain. The patient disclosed that some twelve years earlier he had attempted suicide during a depressive episode, and had used a nail gun directed between the eyes to end his life. Since that time, he has done just fine.

(see resource box)

Everything is a matter of odds. If you can shoot nails into your brain and survive essentially unscathed, then certainly you might be able to smoke, lead a sedentary life, breathe toxic fumes, be unfit, and eat almost anything and possibly escape damage too.

For most of us, however, it would be much smarter to weigh the odds in our favor and use our brain (minus nails) to exercise judgment and foresight and make decisions now that increase the odds for a better, longer, happier life.