top of page

The Preposterous Proliferation of Preconditions

According to Ivan Oransky, a medical doctor and former editor of Reuters Health, everyone reading this column is suffering from the universally terminal condition called pre-death. This assumes, of course, that everyone reading this article is actually alive.

Although said with tongue firmly planted in cheek to an audience of health groupies at the 2012 TEDMED conference in Washington, D.C., Oransky’s point is clear: The rush to label people with one medical condition or another, even if it’s a pre-condition, has gotten out of hand.

“As if actual diseases weren’t frightening enough,” writes The Atlantic’s Brian Fung in his review of Oransky’s talk, “we now have what seems like a whole encyclopedia of pre-diseases to fear” – everything from pre-hypertension and pre-diabetes to pre-anxiety and pre-dementia.

“I have another name for these preconditions,” said Oransky. “I call them preposterous.”

As new school as the thought of being predestined for disease may sound, its roots are actually quite old school.

Drawing on familiar Bible verses such as “Many are called, but few are chosen,” 16th-century theologian John Calvin popularized the idea that only a select group of people will be saved and go to heaven while everyone else, regardless of piety, will suffer eternal damnation. As harmless as such notions may sound, there’s at least one documented case of someone becoming physically ill at the mere thought of such random selection.

In her book Retrospection and Introspection, 19th-century religious leader and medical reformer Mary Baker Eddy relates that before being admitted as a young girl to the Congregational Church, she became “greatly troubled” by Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.

“I was unwilling to be saved, if my brothers and sisters were to be numbered among those who were doomed to perpetual banishment from God. So perturbed was I by the thoughts aroused by this erroneous doctrine that the family doctor was summoned, and pronounced me stricken with fever.”

After praying for a short time – mentally exchanging the thought of eternal and perhaps inevitable damnation for a more inspired view of God’s unrelenting love – the fever lifted.

“The physician marveled; and the ‘horrible decree’ of predestination – as John Calvin rightly called his own tenet – forever lost its power over me.”

Although this may sound like an isolated, unrelated event, people like Dr. Oransky are beginning to question the effect that other if less dire prognoses like pre-hypertension and pre-diabetes are having on a society prone to seeking medical treatment that may actually do more harm than good. He cites the more than 100,000 people who die each year, not from the conditions they’re suffering from, but from the mostly drug-based remedies they require to manage these conditions.

Perhaps a more important question to ask is if we’re all predisposed to disease in the first place. Is it possible that health might actually be our natural, even eternal condition? As crazy as that may sound, there’s no denying the fact that we’re seeing an increasing number of people these days living longer, healthier lives – many without the aid of medical intervention and, presumably, without the burden of unwarranted prediagnoses.

Certainly, then, this remains a possibility for everyone reading this article.

bottom of page