If you were given the choice of trading away a year of your life in exchange for avoiding taking a daily pill, what would you choose? One thousand people were given this hypothetical choice; surprisingly, many chose the latter. Specifically, 21 percent said that they would gladly trade away an extra year to avoid being on a pill, and 8 percent said they would give up two years of their lives.

This study raises an important issue. People really hate taking regular daily medications. Ignoring possible side effects, just the act of taking a prescription pill seems to have a large effect on the quality of our lives. Dig a bit deeper and you will find additional factors influencing this anti daily pill attitude.

Forty years ago, medications were used to treat acute illnesses, and not to try to prevent chronic conditions.  If someone developed pneumonia, they were given an antibiotic for a week, and that was it. Treatment finished. Now, times have changes.

In the last few decades, we have learned that taking medications chronically, often 5, 6, or 7 of them every day, can help prevent complications from conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But, this usually involves getting people to take medications to try to prevent a problem, even though they are feeling fine. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow.

Is there another way? How about shifting the focus of treatment of chronic illnesses away from daily oral medication? Let's take heart disease as an example. The current health care system is geared toward detecting coronary artery disease late in its course. Medications are prescribed long after lifestyle choices have already contributed to elevated cholesterol levels. Quick fixes like bypass surgery or coronary stents are the acceptable norm, if not the public perception, of the gold standard of treatment.

There is another way. A recent study done in Sweden convincingly demonstrated that limiting five common behaviors in our lives could prevent 4 out of 5 heart attacks. The most interesting thing about this trial is that not one of the five behaviors that cut the risk of having a heart attack involved taking any kind of medication at all!  The factors that made a difference were:

1.  Stop smoking
2.  Eat better
3.  Lose weight
4.  Exercise
5.  Drink less alcohol

Guess how many people in our country are able to do all of these things in their life?  The answer is shocking – less than one percent. There are lots of reasons why so few of us are unable to make lifestyle changes, and instead end up on prescription medications.  Here are just a few:

1.  We drive everywhere we go, we eat processed foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates, and are gaining weight.  This leads to increasing rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the exact conditions that are treated by chronic medications that we want to avoid taking.

2.  Doctors do not have enough time, nor are well trained, to discuss the difficult topics like stress in our lives, sedentary behavior, and diet that lead to the very conditions that are "easily" treated by writing a prescription.

3.  Patients seek out other alternatives such as supplements and alternative treatments.  About 40 percent of Americans spend more than 34 billion dollars per year using alternative products, most do not tell their doctors, and many of these therapies may not work as well as the prescription medication that we are avoiding.

There is no easy solution to this problem. But wouldn't it be great if we could budge that one percent just a bit in our favor, with more people committing to making some of these changes that lead to a healthy lifestyle.

For the people surveyed who chose to bail out a year early, I suggest joining the one percent. A lot of rewarding experiences can take place in 365 days. That's a great payoff for a healthy life style.


Dr. David Becker is a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. and has been in practice for 25 years. In 1993, after extensive research, Dr. Becker launched Healthy Change of Heart™, an innovative 10-week program designed to reverse heart disease and improve quality of life through diet, exercise, and stress management. Since then, thousands of patients have participated in the program, achieving significant results in improving cardiac wellness.