Friday, April 29, 2011

14,000 pills

There is a display at the British Museum, created by a group called Pharmacopoeia (sounds like a pharmaceutical company to me!), that illustrates the medical life of an average person. One side of the display is the life of a man and the other side is the life of a woman.

Each side presents a timeline of the different medical experiences in the person's life, starting with birth and going right up to death. Items listed include vaccinations, appendix surgery, heartburn, lung cancer, and the like: notable moments, medically speaking. Photos, certificates of life and death and the like, and handwritten notes, are added on to the timeline to illustrate the person's life.

Overlying it all is a web full of pills. They vary in shape and size and colour and apparently represent the pills that the person has taken over the course of his or her life. The label tells me that there an average person takes 14,000 prescription pills during his/her lifetime, in addition to about 40,000 over-the-counter pills.

I was horrified by this number but I just did the math and realised that if I include my vitamins, I'm probably batting about 90,000. Ouch! (But since I live in countries where I can get just about any drug without prescription, I'll probably take no more than 100 prescribed pills in my lifetime. I imagine that's not something to be proud of.)

What caught my attention was that the connection between pills and a timeline-of-life gave the impression that a person depends on that many pills to make it to a full-length happy life. But would the person have dropped dead at the age of 1 with no pills? It's very possible, of course, what with infant and early child mortality decreasing greatly with basic immunizations. Would the person have passed on at 30 without the heartburn medications? That's less likely. Did the pills extend a person's life from 70 to 80? Well, good medical care has certainly been connected with higher average death rates, but is it really the pills? In fact, the vast majority of those prescription pills are taken during the last decade of life, when it's probably too late to invest in good health. And surely we pay a price for injecting man-concocted chemicals into our bodies at such intense rates!

And all of this was just a tad disturbing to me when I noticed that the display was sponsored by some guys who refer to themselves as pharma-something. Was this art, or education, or propaganda?


happygirl said...

Wow, I never thought about the number. Huge and expensive. I don't even want to think about my number. Take care.

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