Denying Health Issues Can Be Deadly


Denial can be deadly. This is particularly true when it comes to health issues. Many of us can envision friends, family, or spouses who, for no good reason, kick and scream at the thought of seeing the doctor, even for a physical.

Wait a minute. No good reason? “Deniers” have plenty of “good” reasons for ignoring health problems: “I don’t have time.” “I’m perfectly fine (minus that daily headache and high cholesterol).” “What are they going to tell me that I don’t know anyway?” “I don’t like being around sick people.”

For Atlanta management consultant Steffanie Edwards’ mother, who is battling several health issues including psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, says he also sees the fear factor in his work with cardiac patients.

“I think there are some patients who have a family history of people having a given illness and when they begin to have symptoms, they’re so fearful of it that the thought of going in and seeing the doctor is too frightening. There are other people who feel that illness is a distraction or a weakness and that they shouldn’t yield to it. There are still other people who feel so distressed in their lives that their health is just a low, low priority compared with other things,” he tells WebMD.

In the case of a severe event, such as heart attack, stroke, or bleeding , it is the same fear factor that can have an opposite affect on people who are in denial about their health. Khera calls this the “>heart attack patient who finally “wakes up.” Initially, he says many patients will do anything the doc says, but then, with time, some begin to fall off the health care wagon.

“After time, just like anything else in life, people forget. They forget how sick they were; they forget how scared they were; they forget all of the deals they made with themselves, and they go on. And I think that it’s unfortunate that it often takes a scare to make people care about their health,” he says. I think part of what people think is that, ‘If I have a heart attack, they’ll open my and I’m “>heart disease, coronary artery disease, is a lifelong chronic illness and there is no cure. There are plenty of therapies — that’s the good news — and ways to reduce risk, but there is no cure.”

The key, truthfully, is to prevent these nasty health problems from surfacing in the first place, and there are plenty of new treatments to help. But the picture of health becomes more complex with silent illnesses — including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes — that put people at risk for much bigger problems down the road. All three conditions are tied to stroke and , leading killers in the U.S. Their slick nature makes getting regular checkups — whether we like it or not — essential.

“>blood pressure and cholesterol, there is no immediate benefit, such as if your knee hurts and fixing that,” Khera says.

People should take an active role in prevention, Khera adds. “Everybody should know their cholesterol, and I don’t think it’s just enough to say that your doctor said it was just ‘OK’. You should actually know your numbers. … Because I think that a lot of doctors are great doctors out there, but you know people are busy and not everyone looks as closely.” He says the same is true for diabetes screening and blood pressure levels.

People who ignore their health problems aren’t bad people. Outside of fear, required lifestyle changes that are drilled in our brains over and over again — lose weight, exercise regularly, quit smoking, eat right — are painfully difficult for most. But at some point we all must own responsibility for our own health and our decisions.

With that said, is there any way to help if you are the one on the outside looking in? Denial is a delicate and frustrating equation, a balance between a person not wanting to seek treatment and someone else wanting him or her to just do something!

“Rather than pointing out the faults, I encourage people to just have them get a healthy checkup. Focus on the positive of optimal health and improving their health,” Newton-Keith, who is an expert in morbid obesity, tells WebMD. “Find a reason for them to come. For example, so that they can walk better, so they’re not short of breath, so that they don’t have so much fatigue, so that they sleep better.”

Edwards, who has encouraged counseling for her mother’s overeating and avoided unhealthy foods in her presence, says her mother finally made one lifestyle change when her mother felt it was important.

“She started getting embarrassed about the fact that she can’t walk standing straight up [after the knee surgery]; she bends over a little bit. The doctor has always told her that she needs to exercise, which she found that when she did the stationary bicycle, her condition got better,” Edwards says.

Ketterer says there is no magic pill that will shake people’s denial. He notes however, that trust is part of the solution. “You need to trust your spouse and trust your family member as sort of a monitor. … All of us tend to believe that we know ourselves better than those around us, but actually the evidence says that that may not be true.”

In the end, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. “The real question is what’s motivating them to seek medical care,” says Newton-Keith. “And it’s usually pain or an ache or a change that’s different. If they’re not motivated, they have to reach a point where they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired to get to that point. … You have to love yourself enough to want to be healthy.”