Does an Ostrich-Patient Live Longer ?

ostrich effect in health

“Good Morning Doctor” beamed Gagan* in his loud booming voice.

You couldn’t help but bask in the sunshine that this simple man brought into the consulting room. Gagan was a 45 years old ex-army man who suffered from Ataxia. Ataxia is a condition of the nervous system in which movement is affected. (This means that Gagan tottered and slurred like a drunk, without actually drinking).

Undampened Spirits:

Gagan’s Neurologist had declared the inevitable fate of his disease, “There’s nothing much that can be done, you’ll have to live and die with this”. However, it didn’t seem like this had dampened Gagan’s spirits. (I confess, I even wondered how much of the medical mumbo jumbo had made sense to the poor soul.) Gagan would thrill me every month with his dedication to the advised exercises and his progress – “I can now lift a bucket of water”, or “I went through the entire month without a fall”.

A Stark Contrast:

Gagan always reminded me of another Ataxia patient, Prof. Dandekar* a 42 years old Lecturer of Physics. In contrast to Gagan who couldn’t even pronounce the full name of his disease (Spinocerebellar ataxia can be quite a tongue twister), Professor Dandekar was almost a master of his disease – the incurable pathology, the limited treatment options, even the latest research. I would have to read frantically so that I could keep up with him! He was improving slowly and steadily, as is expected for someone with his pathology. But it was not as fast as Gagan.

One day the Professor’s wife grumbled, “Doctor, every spare minute that he gets is spent researching about how soon he is going to become wheelchair bound.” The Professor’s counter-argument was not weak either, “If I know what I am dealing with and what to expect, I can be better prepared.” It was then that I began wondering…Was Gagan recovering faster than the Professor because of his ostrich-like ignorant bliss? Do Ostrich –patients live longer?

A Heavy Orange:

If you compare both men, Age group: similar, Progress of disease symptoms: similar. I must admit, their illnesses were not exactly the same. Gagan’s ‘Spinocerebellar Ataxia’ and the Professor’s ‘Friedreich Ataxia’ have different patterns of genetic inheritance. But it isn’t like comparing apples and oranges – it’s more like comparing the mandarin orange with the sweet orange. Not too different, right? How then, had Gagan made a beautiful juice with the orange given to him, while the Professor had got bogged down with the weight of his orange?

Multiple studies  (like this) have been conducted since the 1980s where they asked people to rate their own health. These people were then tracked over decades and it was found that those with poor self-rated health were found to be associated with higher mortality rates. And surprisingly, medical history, heart disease risk factors, and education are not able to explain the association completely. So if you think you are healthy, you are likely to live longer, sometimes even irrespective of your actual health!

What killed Vickie:

In 2014, 23 years old Vickie’s parents petitioned UK’s Health Secretary for patients of terminal illness’ right not to know. Vickie was suffering from AML, a blood cancer she had been battling on and off since 2012. Vickie’s parents alleged that she had died within two weeks after she was devastated by her doctor’s explanation of her low chances of survival. What really killed Vickie – the cancer or the hopelessness of cancer?

Off course, there is no denying the fact that for almost all diseases, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better your chances of treating or even preventing the disease spreading to others. But sometimes, people like Gagan really make you wonder whether knowledge is power or ignorance is bliss. Was the knowledge of her incurable disease responsible for taking Vickie’s life? Would the Professor have healed faster had he not been informed that he would continue to suffer from a progressive illness that would kill him one day? Would you rather be an all knowing owl or the supposedly stupid ostrich? If you ask me my honest opinion, I do not know. These questions remain unanswered for me, at least for now.

Or would it make more sense to know a little about your disease but still have a hopeful belief and work towards recovery? I guess a little moderation never hurt anyone…


any fool can turn a blind eye

*Real People, But Not their Real Names.