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Is widespread pill usage actually making us more disease prone?

Did you see that employers looking to hire are having a hard time finding them free of drugs, especially marijuana? Meanwhile the House of Congress looks like it’s going to pass a bill to help recovery by drug addicts, especially those who use prescription drugs. But for the moment, it looks like Congress is focused more on helping people to recover from drug addiction than on limiting the drugs themselves. So it looks like the copious supply will continue unabated. Oh well…

What drugs are your friends taking lately? Other than pain-killers and opioids I mean? How about pills for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, pre-diabetes, statins just to mention a few? Recently I was at a dealer repair center and I heard a group of older ladies discussing their medications. All of them were on them, most for diabetes and most taking not one but numerous different types of pills every day.

So drugs like marijuana are hardly the problem. All the other drugs and pills are. And the problem is going to get worse. Last year the American Heart Association recommended that statin drugs – used to lower cholesterol - be used by a wider swathe of people under new criteria they had devised. Under this change another 8 million to 13 million people would start popping them. That would mean that just under half of all adults aged 40 to 75 would be eligible.

Last year the American Medical Association estimated that around 60% of Americans take a prescription drug.  But note carefully the use of the word “prescription”. That 60% doesn’t include non-prescription drugs such as Zantac and Tagamet. These are powerful drugs. Amongst other things they lead to decreased resistance to infection and increased risk of cancer and other diseases. And people often use certain non-prescription drugs long-term. – for pain, constipation, colds etc. So there’s no doubt that the actual rate of people taking pills is a lot higher than 60%.

Neither does that include people taking illicit drugs such as heroin, marijuana, spice and other synthetics. Add that and up goes the PP (pill-popping) rate again. Maybe it’s really more like 80% or even higher. When will it reach 100%? 2020?

And here’s another thing. How about all those drugs we take involuntarily such as antibiotics in meat, and food additives including as endocrine disruptors from bisphenol A, found in most plastic food packaging?  Pretty much everyone is popping these drugs involuntarily and in the main unware of their existence and effects.

We really have no understanding of what this pot-pourri of chemicals is doing to our bodies. How do they affect the brain? These days we know that the microbiome affects everything in our bodies. How is that affected? We don’t know about that either.

There are uncounted interactions between the drugs. We know about a few, not about the vast majority. Nor do we understand the long-term effects of such interactions.

We do of course see some of the more immediate effects. This obvious pernicious ones include obesity, mental disease, cognitive impairment and probably some auto-immune diseases. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Now clearly some of these pills and food additives do some good for the individuals taking them. The problem arises when we all take them. As we know the massive use of antibiotics in animal feed to make livestock grow faster has led to almost universal drug-resistance in many disease agents such as TB. Economists and social scientists know this under there term “the tragedy of the commons”. That means that what is good for an individual can actually be very bad for society as a whole.

What could the tragedy of the commons actually be in the case of our collective pill-popping? It’s almost certain it’s having effects at the genetic level; we just don’t know what they are. But it’s possible to take an educated guess.

There’s a pretty good chance that this deluge of drugs is leading to many disease control mechanisms to become altered. Maybe to become less effective. Probably our collective genes have taken the decision that since there are other agents at work, they’ll sit back and let the outsiders do the work.

Of course, when these pills act on us, often it has numerous unintended side effects that we often just don’t know about, especially the long-term ones. Our own immune system no doubt gets very confused by all this. Sure, nowadays we have immunotherapy drugs for cancer and other diseases and they show a lot of promise. But that’s on an individual basis. What about the collective effects? What happens when you use them on not one or a few people but on a whole population? What happens to the human genome then?

So here’s my educated guess. I think that the ubiquitous taking of multiple drugs is having an impact on the human genome. It is likely reducing its ability to fight certain diseases, maybe many. It is impacting our health – short- and long-term in numerous ways that we don’t yet understand. It could be doing some really nasty things we haven’t even considered yet, like reducing our cognitive capacity – intelligence if we want to use that very loaded word.

And here’s what I think is the bottom line. The impact of these drugs is so widespread and their impact so powerful on individuals that it is having permanent impacts on the human genome. In other words it is affecting the evolution of the human genome and thus the human body and its functioning, including probably its cognitive functioning. It’s possible that some of these changes might have beneficial effects. It’s more likely that many will have – and are already having – pernicious or at least untoward effects. We just don’t know about them yet.

In a recent post I discussed the problem of declining human fertility and declining sperm counts in human males. We don’t know why these are happening. Maybe it’s all those pills?

Unfortunately the tragedy of the commons doesn’t announce itself in advance. One day the effects just become painfully apparent. Then it’s just too late.

We might be very close to that point right now







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