In his new book, The End of Illness, California oncologist Dr. David Agus argues for an immediate shift in the way we view healthcare. Americans are losing the war on cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other major illnesses, he writes, and standard Western treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and pharmaceuticals are both misdirected and way too late. Instead, we should be aiming to prevent disease from occurring in the first place. “We have become a country that treats disease but does not prevent it,” he recently told The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. “Cancer is not from without. It’s from within… [Mine] is a whole different way of thinking about health.”
Well, not exactly. Prevention has been the focus of many non-Western therapies—like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine—for many thousands of years. Kripalu’s Director of Medical Education Lisa B. Nelson, MD, points out that since Western medicine has been slow to embrace the “prevention” method, choosing instead to target cures, Agus’s book is a welcome voice toward changing that tide. Still, she sees the book’s largely one-size-fits-all approach as a bit extreme at times. Among other claims, Agus writes that sitting for much of the day (like at a desk), even if you also exercise, is worse than smoking; vitamins do more harm than good; and if you can’t get your fruits and veggies right from the farm, you should only buy flash-frozen, rather than fresh. Strict eating and sleeping patterns, meanwhile, are a must. “If you eat lunch at noon one day and at 2 the next, that’s hugely stressful on your body,” Agus told Stewart.
Such prescriptions are attention-grabbing, but can risk alienating people, putting them off healthful routines and causing needless stress. “A better, more moderate approach might be to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, period,” says Nelson. “Getting in five to seven servings a day has been associated with decreased risks for cancer, heart disease and diabetes. And it’s OK to eat an apple when you’re hungry, even if it’s not at the same time every day.” In some spots, Agus is inconsistent. Though he advocates avoiding vitamins, he suggests a daily statin and baby aspirin for anyone over 40—without noting that these medications can cause significant side effects, including myopathies and gastrointestinal bleeding.
The End of Illness is already a success, if in part because of its flashy title and our enduring obsession with uncovering the fountain of youth. Either way, Nelson believes Agus’s book may be the beginning of a much-needed mainstream push toward prevention. “We’re realizing that the current trend of increasing chronic disease has got to end,” she says. “It’s just not sustainable. But there are no magic bullets.”