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What If Health Were More Like Wealth?

We routinely squander and neglect something we would hate to have taken from us, and would surely fight to prevent someone taking from our loved ones. It's certainly wisdom, it's just not yet conventional to acknowledge that health is wealth. Making it conventional is up to us.
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No doubt about it, healthy, wealthy and wise is one helluva trifecta. But what if you had to choose? Would you rather be rich but feel poorly -- or "feel" rich, but not necessarily be rich? Hold that thought.

Conventional wisdom expressed in proverbs and adages is not entirely reliable. Some such expressions are only vaguely, idly, or conditionally true. But every now and then, conventional wisdom totally nails it. "You are what you eat" is spot on. So is: "If you don't have your health, you don't have anything."

The first of these is overused and underloved, and far more literally true than most people realize. The exhaustion of enzymes, the consumption of hormones and the turnover of hundreds of millions of cells daily in the body of an adult calls out for reconstitution. That constant reconstitution -- like the flow of water through the channel of a river -- comes from its sources: scavenging among our own body parts, and food.

As for the growing body of a child, it cannot be fueled by scavenging. You can't get bigger using only the body you already have as fuel. The one and only construction material for the growing body of a child is food, and the nutrients in it. That simple truth makes "junk" food sound rather less innocuous, doesn't it?

But my attention now is focused on the other truism, regarding health and possession. It's true: In the absence of health, everything else is worthless.

Over 20 years of patient care, I have seen -- far too many times, painful to recall -- people reach retirement age with nicely gilded nest eggs, and disastrously scrambled health. I have never met anyone seriously willing to trade their capacity to get out of bed for a large bundle of cash. I have known many people who would gladly give up large fortunes for the chance to get out of bed one more time, or get out of a wheelchair or be free of weekly dialysis.

But now we enter the Twilight Zone, where what's real and important, and how we behave, part company. We value money (i.e., wealth) before we have it, while we have it and if ever we had it. We want it if we can't get it. It's a crime when someone takes it from us. We fight to keep it.

Health is more important, but most of us -- and our society at large -- value it only after it's lost.

Consider that one of the more significant trends in health promotion is providing some financial incentive for people to get healthy. This strategy is populating more and more programs in both real space and cyberspace, and is incorporated into many worksite wellness initiatives.

I have no real problem with it -- whatever gets us to the prize is okay with me. But it is... bizarre. We have to be paid to care about getting healthy.

Consider if it were the other way around. You could do a job, and you would get money for doing the job, but then you demanded an "incentive." Money is not an incentive? No! We insist on being provided "health" to incentivize us to work for the sake of wealth. Unless you, my employer, can guarantee that working for you will help make me healthy, you can take this job and paycheck and...

Ludicrous, right? It doesn't even sound rational to insist on getting paid in health to accept benefits in wealth. And yet, we all accept that it's perfectly rational to require payment in wealth to accept benefits in health. We all accept it, that is, until health is gone, we realize what really mattered all along, and we say: What the %#^$ was I thinking? Too late.

I have a real problem with this, not because I want to be in charge of anyone else's life, but because I know that people want to be in charge of their own lives. Once health is gone, so is control. Your life is governed by medications, procedures, doctor visits and emergencies. You are the very opposite of in charge.

Our society makes it quite clear that responsible adults take care of their money. They don't spend it as they earn it -- they put some into savings. They anticipate the needs of their children, and their own needs in retirement. Wealth -- or at least solvency -- is cultivated. If you neglect to take care of your budget and your savings, you are, in the judgment of our culture, irresponsible.

But our culture renders no such guidance for those who routinely neglect their health. Those who don't have time today to eat well, but will have time tomorrow for cardiac bypass. Those who don't have time today to exercise, but will have time tomorrow to visit the endocrinologist. Prevailing neglect of health costs us dearly, individually and collectively, and it costs us both health and wealth. Being sick is very expensive -- in every currency that matters: time, effort, opportunity cost, legacy and yes, dollars.

What if health were more like wealth?

  • If health were like wealth, we would value it while gaining it -- not just after we'd lost it.

  • If health were like wealth, we would make getting to it a priority.
  • If health were like wealth, we would invest in it to secure a better future.
  • If health were like wealth, we would work hard to make sure we could pass it on to our children.
  • If health were like wealth, we would accept that it may take extra time and effort today, but that's worth it because of the return on that investment tomorrow.
  • If health were like wealth, society would respect those who are experts at it.
  • If health were like wealth, young people would aspire to it.
  • But health is not like wealth. We venerate wealth, and all too often, denigrate health. People are routinely willing to lose weight fast on some cockamamie diet to look good for a special event. It's not healthy, but what the heck? Well, it would be like cashing out your 401(k) to show up at the special event in a flashy car you can't really afford. It would feel good for a day, and bad for the rest of your life. We know this, and responsible people don't treat wealth this way. But we mortgage health to the point of foreclosure as a matter of routine.

    Health is not like wealth. It is vastly MORE important. Just ask anyone who has one but not the other.

    I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt this way, when I stumbled upon like-minded colleagues in an unlikely place: at the very center of the hip-hop world of bling and ka-ching!

    A team led by Emmy- and Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones III has launched Feel Rich, Inc. Their tag line sums it all up: Health is the new wealth. Leveraging connections to top artists in the world of rap, hip-hop, and more, Feel Rich is committed to engaging an audience of urban youth with dreams of wealth, and tell them in a language they speak, from the mouths of those they admire, that health is wealth. That health "is at the heart of all great success."

    And, once Feel Rich has the kids' attention -- which they do! -- they provide access to a fast-growing array of empowering resources and guidance. They cultivate the will for health in a place that has fostered other priorities, and then help pave the way.

    Feel Rich is, in my opinion, inspired -- and I recommend you visit their website, and help spread the word. Taking the message that health is wealth to the people in the streets where health has all too often been run over, is a wonderful contribution to public health. I feel richer already, knowing I have such allies.

    Which brings us back to that choice. You may have caught on by now that it's something of a trick question. It's hard to have wealth, in any currency, in the absence of health. Health is wealth, and it also helps fuels the pursuit of wealth. The absence of health is a serious drain on wealth, or any chance of getting.

    We routinely squander and neglect something we would hate to have taken from us, and would surely fight to prevent someone taking from our loved ones. It's certainly wisdom, it's just not yet conventional to acknowledge that health is wealth. Making it conventional is up to us.


    Dr. David L. Katz;

    For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.

    For more on personal health, click here.

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