I was at my GP recently for a routine exam, and mentioned that I needed a new prescription for my birth control pill. It’s been a while since I was on this pill due to pregnancies and breastfeeding. She asked me if I could remember the name of the brand, and I told her. She then asked if I smoke (no) and if I ever get migraines.
‘Now that you mention it,’ I said, ‘I do sometimes get them now. I think it’s when I’m really, really tired. I lose vision and get really nauseous.’
‘Ah,’ she said.
It turns out, since I was on this medication last, they’ve discovered there might be a link between women who get migraines and also take this pill, and strokes. STROKES. Especially if they’re under 45. Which I am.
I would quite like to not have a stroke.
I got home and did some quick checking on the internet (what do you know? My doctor knows what she’s talking about!) and then I was reading about strokes in general, and discovered that there is a link — whether or not it is causal, seems unclear — between long term, sustained stress, and strokes. And that made me laugh a bit, because there is a fair bit of that kind of information about. You know the kind of articles I mean. The ones that tell you that depressed people are more likely to die younger than those without depression. And the ones that tell you that insomniacs are more likely to have heart failure. And when I read those articles, I think, how is this good information to have? If you’re depressed, how is it good to know that you might have a shorter lifespan? Isn’t that going to make you even more depressed? And if you can’t sleep, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to help, wondering if your lack of sleep is a contributing factor to a possible heart attack in later life. And if you’re pregnant? There are now lists of things you have worry about and consider to keep your baby safe. Oh, and by the way, apparently if your grandmother smoked while she was pregnant with your mother, it could be the cause of your unborn child’s asthma. Awesome.
It’s not as if I would like to go back to the age of superstition and luck, when you could die from an infected cut, or when there was no treatment for cancer. But I do wonder if we have just a bit too much information, nowadays, about our bodies and potential health problems. How much is too much knowledge? How much do we really need to know? We talk about knowledge being power, but is it really empowering, to know about all the potential risks that might just be risks, that are based on statistics with many variables? I can’t help wondering if it’s because drug manufacturers and health professionals are worried about being sued, if they don’t disclose every single little thing which might go wrong with you later in life. Maybe we’ve done this to ourselves? We’ve probed and delved so deeply into the minefield of health research, and we demand to hear every detail, every result of every study, just so we’re up to date with the latest in medical science. The question is: what are we even hoping to do with this knowledge?
In the past, information about our health would be on a need-to-know basis. The doctor would tell you what tests were required, what your prognosis was, and you, the patient, were expected to be patient. You took for granted that their advice was right for you. You didn’t get a second opinion — why would you need one? And you trusted that everything would be OK, and left your health in the hands of those who knew better.
Of course, people who work in the health sector are people, and they make mistakes and get diagnoses wrong, and miss symptoms. Hopefully not often, but it happens. So there’s a reason why we started asking ‘what’s that test really for?’ and ‘are you sure it’s…’ and began to demand more information about our health. And this was a good thing. If we have more information about our bodies, it could mean that we take better care of them, make better choices. It might mean we’re sharing responsibility for our health with our caregivers, rather than assuming that they’re always going to have the (right) answers, and placing them on a pedestal, from which they’re sure to fall.
The problem is, in demanding access to all this knowledge, we’ve opened the floodgates, and I’m not sure we’re mentally prepared for all the information that’s flowing very quickly in our direction.
Being able to access the kinds of knowledge that was previously only available to professionals has its drawbacks. While it’s great to have more information, we may not necessarily have the experience or training to interpret it, so it becomes confusing and overwhelming. Reports in the media often select the most shocking or sensational aspects of a study, and focus on them, rather than presenting them in a more measured way. Of course they do, because the authors want the reports to be read, or watched, or listened to. But in doing so, they’re not necessarily contributing to a better understanding about our health. If anything, they’re exacerbating the problem.
I wouldn’t like to argue that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not convinced that omniscience is bliss either. To that end, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. Oh, don’t worry — I’m still going to ask my doctor for advice when I need it, and go for checkups. I’ll still take responsibility for the fact that it’s my body, and that I know it best. And I’ll still do research on my own, if I think it’s going to be useful. But in terms of all the other stuff, I intend to blithely ignore it, and just assume that I am going to live a long and healthy life. Because most of this information still really should be on a need-to-know basis, when you think about it.
And I most certainly do not need to know.