Posts Tagged 'health'

Medications for the Healthy

Is medically unnecessary neural enhancement (via medication) justifiable?

In an article about multi-tasking and distraction (as related to blackberries, twittering, facebook, google, etc), Sam Anderson comments on the loss of productivity and notes that:

“A quintessentially Western solution to the attention problem—one that neatly circumvents the issue of willpower—is to simply dope our brains into focus. We’ve done so, over the centuries, with substances ranging from tea to tobacco to NoDoz to Benzedrine, and these days the tradition seems to be approaching some kind of zenith with the rise of neuroenhancers: drugs designed to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderall), Alzheimer’s (Aricept), and narcolepsy (Provigil) that can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention. (…)”

The idea that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal if people started taking such drugs to boost their concentration is problematic. Those who are prescribed the medication (those under discussion in the article are for people with ADHD, Alzheimers, and narcolepsy) are treating an under (or over) performance in one area of their brain which prevents them from attaining normal cognitive function; if everyone started enhancing perfectly normal attention patterns, the norm would change.

Even the term ‘neuroenhancer’, which, by the way, I cannot find in online medical dictionaries, is a little misleading, as its components imply that the drugs enhance brain function, when, naturally, they enhance bits of brain function – possibly (probably) at the expense of other bits.

Drugs like Adderall are described as psychostimulants, like caffeine and cocaine. Ritalin is essentially speed.

Beyond the alteration of how one defines ‘normal function’, there are, of course, the side effects. Adderall can, among other things, cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting, and acts as an appetite suppressant (much like caffeine only for a much longer time). Drugs for Alzheimers can do much the same thing, along with causing (!) confusion, vomiting, and hives. And the narcolepsy stuff is much the same again, with a potential for addiction and, unsurprisingly, may also cause insomnia, which might be great for finishing that grad paper, but might also suck for your mood and long-term health.

Add to all that the idea that, perhaps, ADHD is over-diagnosed and the ‘hyperactive’ behavior is a function of children being trapped indoors or playing a load of video games or generally responding to a more ‘stimulating’ world, and the treatment of it may simply be a way of changing the child to fit the education system rather than the other way around, and the problem, to me, seems to be the attitude towards a broadly defined idea of work, requiring a systematic overhaul, rather than turbo charging the brain as one might a car’s engine.

Popping a pill is not the same as getting regular exercise (increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain thereby improving function overall) or changing your diet, as an overall lifestyle change will affect the body as a system rather than chemically altering one particular part.

Those who decide to take pills to compensate for a lack of planning (why did you leave that paper to the last minute?) or to make it a little bit easier to focus at work with all those Twitters happening, shift the responsibility, and possibly endanger their health in the process. Sure, this is their problem, but if one looks at, say, corporate culture, or the structure of schooling, aren’t these demanding a level of focus or performance that can’t generally be achieved without some assistance? Shouldn’t our work environments reflect a balance of human ability?

It is difficult to say outright that people shouldn’t take drugs to enhance focus – are we going to ban caffeine? Red bull? If a surgeon is more adept on speed, should we begrudge the patients that superior performance?

But then again, surely we can agree that there is a spectrum of ‘enhancement’, that coffee is a mild stimulant, that the surgeon should be able to do his job without a boost. To justify and accept casual and regular usage of psychostimulants and the like would be to allow that the increasing demands of work and life are worth it. That the pace of life should be faster, and that to take a little something to keep up is a small price to pay for progress. Real progress would be organizing work around our whole life, not allowing the marketplace to dictate what portion of life the individual gets to retain, or how fast their brain needs to work.

To advance technologically should not involve disrespecting our own limitations.

Don’t Fear the Reaper


In the Sunday Times Magazine over the weekend, I came across this incisive piece from A.A. Gill, whose acerbic and witty tv and restaurant reviews are always a fun read.

This article, however, is on a much sterner subject – the isolation and neglect of the aged on a societal and cultural level. Once dementia, Alzheimer’s, disease or simply lessening function sets in, our parents and grandparents, aunts and old friends are slowly tucked away in ‘homes’ or hospices. His article points out that (despite various NHS scandals) the care is largely good, but perfunctory, and is, he notices, often performed by people from cultures where the aged are more revered.

What damns us, he feels, is the way our (‘our’ being the comparatively young and healthy) fear of death and aging allows us to let these people fade from sight. We find it easier to ignore people who seem ‘old’, all the more so when they’re sent into care. They might not always be fully lucid, but loneliness and depression are rampant, and we sigh, visit less and less often, and pass the burden of care onto ‘professionals’.

To be honest, most working people would, I think, doubt their own ability to care for ill and aging relatives. It’s a full time job, akin to parenting, only backwards, as the likelihood is that dependence will increase. However, one suspects (as I’m sure Gill intends) that perhaps not everyone in care needs to be there. That, perhaps, one should choose a home close enough to visit, or consider having the relative visited by a nurse in one’s family home, where the bulk of care is still outsourced, but the companionship and participation in family life can remain.

Beyond simply thinking now that, perhaps, in the future, if my parents or aunts and uncles need help, I’d try to take them on, if I had enough money and support, Gill wants us to consider our larger, general attitude. Why do we no longer see the aged as sources of stories and wisdom? Just the other day someone told me that when crows build nests high in the trees, it’s a sign that the summer will be warm (they need the breeze). This isn’t someone I’d classify as old, simply older, but what a wonderful thing to learn. And I sincerely doubt that information is something I would have ever picked up otherwise.

It occurs to me that the lack of humanity with which we endow the aged in our minds is akin to the Victorians view of children, in that people weren’t really people before a certain age. Has the pendulum swung so far that, in our constant quest for perpetual youth, we’ve come to think that people aren’t really people once they are beyond a certain age or absence of signs of youth?

To want to stay young isn’t simply vanity, it’s fear of approaching death, of losing everything. But surely we can fear death while happily anticipating the amalgamation of stories, wisdom, and experience that comes with time?


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