Column: Why do we really become ill?

UGC Columnist Dr Mary Wren
UGC Columnist Dr Mary Wren
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A BBC programme about dementia, presented by Angela Rippon was a fascinating programme looking at some less well known treatments for dementia and ways we can help prevent it.

For example, she discovered that getting a good night’s sleep could help prevent Alzheimer’s and that learning a new language could be as effective as any of the present drug treatments.

There is also some evidence that early-life experiences, holding back emotions and chronic stress can predispose to Alzheimer’s.

Then there is the evidence that inflammatory bowel disease Crohns and ulcerative colitis as examples, could be linked with stressful events in the year before diagnosis.

At the Mayo clinic in America, newly diagnosed patients are asked about it. Another Italian study showed that “long-term perceived stress increases the risk of exacerbation over a period of months to years”.

I decided to chat to my medical student group about this, to see if medical training today would include the idea that illnesses can be linked with issues in our past or stress.

We also discussed the idea of thinking imaginatively about treatment, as in suggesting language classes rather than medication for dementia sufferers.

The conclusion was that most of the training focuses on physical treatments – drugs, surgery and perhaps some counselling, but much less so on alternative options.

As I have read more widely, I find that 50 years ago, research suggested that many chronic diseases could be linked with experiences in childhood, emotional stress and traumatic events prior to the diagnosis. As science has developed and more treatments become available, it is easy to think that this research is out of date and irrelevant, but I wonder if we are missing something.

Then there is the focus for drug companies to make money, as well as hopefully produce drugs that benefit.

It is much less profitable to take time with someone, to help them resolve past trauma and stress.

Instead of more money being ploughed into drug research I wonder if research into some of these softer areas would be more beneficial than we realise.

Or maybe we should revisit some of the evidence from the past. The problem is persuading people that taking time and effort to look at difficult things and change them is worth it. And persuading those who hold the money that it would be a good investment. Popping a pill can seem so much easier.