From The Guardian:
Ten years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich read an article in Scientific American that shook her to the core. Its argument was that the body’s immune system, far from protecting us, can enable the growth and spread of tumours, “which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists”. In the 1960s, Ehrenreich had worked on immune cells as a PhD student, specifically on those known as “macrophages”, and had come to think of them as friends – frontline defenders against microbial invaders. Now that they stood exposed as traitors, one of her basic beliefs was shattered. If our body can attack itself, why bother trying to look after it? What’s the point in striving to stay healthy, when longevity is beyond our control?
“Old age isn’t a battle,” she says, quoting Philip Roth, “old age is a massacre.” In the past few years, she has given up on screenings and scans. Not that she is lazy or suicidal. But at 76, she considers herself old enough to die. All the self-help books aimed at her age group tell her otherwise; they talk of “active ageing”, “productive ageing”, “anti-ageing”, even “reverse-ageing”, with a long life promised to anyone who makes an effort, regardless of factors such as genetics or poverty. But to her, ageing is “an accumulation of disabilities”, which no amount of physical activity or rigorous self-denial can prevent. If she has symptoms, she’ll have them investigated. But when a doctor tells her there could be an undetected problem of some kind, she won’t play along.
Experience has taught her that standard health checks are at best invasive and at worst a scam. Overdiagnosis has become an epidemic. Bone density scans, dental x-rays, mammograms, colonoscopies, CT scans: she questions them all. Preventive medical care, in the US at least, has become a lucrative industry. Many doctors profit financially from the tests and procedures they recommend. And celebrity-driven campaigns for more screening increase the demand. People are being made sick in the pursuit of wellness. An estimated 70-80% of thyroid cancer surgeries performed on American, Italian and French women in the first decade of this century are now judged to have been unnecessary, she claims. And then there are all the elderly who “end up tethered by cables and tubes to an ICU bed”, their life needlessly prolonged and demeaned.
There’s an argument that health checks have value as rituals, that beeping machines in sterile rooms provide the kind of reassurance to modern western consumers that shamanistic drumming and animal horns do in more “primitive” cultures.