In a crowded auditorium in Irvine, California a renowned Harvard professor takes center stage. Amid the lunchtime clanging of silverware and the quiet rustling of the room, he immediately commands the attention and intrigue of everyone present – like an oracle preparing to prophesy of things to come.
With his words he paints a picture; a picture framed in the improbable and mounted on the premise of what seemed to many like science fiction. He spoke of a future where individuals had the power to alter what Mother Nature had set in stone: the very genes they had inherited at birth.
As he elaborated further on the science of epigenetics, the audience came to realize that this wasn’t the plot of an upcoming sci-fi film, and he wasn’t referring to a far off and distant future. Instead, they were learning about landmark breakthroughs in our understanding of genetics and the power individuals possess to alter – through conscious effort - unfavorable hereditary traits. Traits that may, for example, increase their risk of heart disease or of developing certain forms of cancer.
When pressed as to which actions, specifically, would help facilitate this - many in the room anticipated a complicated or expensive regimen. Instead, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and an established expert in Alzheimer’s disease, summarized his take home message with a list of six surprisingly simple steps: (1) exercise, (2) eat healthy, (3) learn new things, (4) maintain social engagement, (5) reduce emotional stress, and (6) sleep well.
Fast forward one month and I am half-jogging across Capitol Hill; wiping beads of sweat from my brow, as I begin to question my decision to wear a suit and tie in the dead of summer. Stepping into a well-ventilated government building, I barely had time to acclimate and grab a quick bite of lunch, before I saw the man I was waiting for emerge from a quiet meeting room.
“Greg!” I waved, all the while hoping I had wiped the crumbs from my face.
“Hey Bryant, can we walk and talk?” He responded, motioning towards the door. Reluctantly I agreed, bracing once again for the humid midday air.
Greg Simon is the Executive Director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force; a body chaired by Vice President Joe Biden and tasked with working across government agencies and the private sector to accelerate a substantial breakthrough in cancer therapy and treatment.
As the two of us walked, we spoke about his new role, our mutual goals, and how we might work together – academia being one of the core partners this initiative seeks to engage.
“The real problem is we need folks like you,” he says, through a relaxed southern drawl, “in academics to shift the way in which our future clinicians are thinking. Right now they are conditioned to recognize and treat disease – not to prevent and stem its occurrence in the first place. We have to shift our priority to prevention, not reaction.”
On my long flight back home to California, I had a chance to reflect on Greg’s words, as the monuments and landmarks of Washington disappeared below a thin veil of clouds. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some connection between the simplicity of his words of wisdom – the need to refocus our approach – and those of Dr. Tanzi’s shortlist; which also amounted to an inward refocusing on the basics. I wondered if the solution to our national health crises, and in many cases, our personal health concerns, could be both incredibly complex and surprisingly simple at the same time.
A lot can be learned from a simple question. Commonly, we ask our friends and colleagues, How are you doing? Or How’s everything? And all too often, we don’t pay attention long enough to listen to the answers. When we do, they are often short or empty responses; offered more as a timesaving courtesy than a genuine reply – I’m good, thanks for asking.
The question, How’s your health?, is a bit more personal, and understandably, more private. It brings to mind things like your latest blood pressure reading, cholesterol report, or maybe the results of a special test your doctor has ordered.
Now pause for a moment, and consider how you might answer the question: How’s your wellness? This feels much less personal, lends itself to open discussion, and in many ways encompasses more elements of the individual as a whole. We might speak about our sleep quality or about going to the gym more often; we might mention our long-term health goals or talk about managing our stress a little better at the office.
Where health in the traditional context focuses paradoxically on disease and treatment – wellness emphasizes care for the individual as a whole; taking into account their social and emotional well-being, in addition to their physical health.
More than anything, wellness is a philosophy. It’s the simple decision to reach for the apple instead of the candy bar; to distance yourself from the friend who unloads their emotional baggage on you constantly, and only adds undue stress to your day. Wellness is not a clinical treatment algorithm or a corporate franchise; it is a redirection of focus – one that begins inwardly and later emanates to the outside.
By focusing on our own wellness, we can have a larger and more meaningful impact on those around us. And we should assess ourselves regularly; on a weekly or daily basis, as to how we’re doing. I recommend using the six elements from Dr. Tanzi’s shortlist as a guide; this will also keep us in the proactive state of mind that Greg Simon mentioned to me – not waiting to react to illness.
So as you go about your day, try asking those you care about, How’s your wellness? And while you are at it, don’t forget to ask the most important person of all – yourself. BA