Sunday, 26 March, 2006

You: The Owner's Manual

I finally finished reading You: The Owner's Manual, by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz.  Both of the authors are M.D.s.  I really wanted to like this book because everything that I'd heard about it was so positive.  But ultimately the book fell short of my expectations.

Don't get me wrong: there's a lot to like about the book.  The authors provide approachable descriptions of major bodily systems and give good information about what can go wrong with those systems and how to keep them healthy and in good working order.  The systems covered are:  heart and arteries, brain and nervous system, skeletal structure, lungs, digestion, sex organs, senses, immune system, and hormones.  There's even a reasonably good chapter on cancer.

The first chapter sets some high expectations.  My eyes continued to widen as I read those few pages, because these doctors were saying things that I've believed for decades:  you are in charge of your own health.  It's easier to stay healthy and keep things in good repair than it is to fix things that break after years of neglect.  Doctors are there to help you stay healthy rather than just to fix things.  And they do the one thing that gives doctors credibility in my eyes:  they admit in the first chapter that there's a lot about the human body that medical science simply doesn't know.

The first chapter ends with a 50-question quiz about your body that most people will fail miserably.  And the questions are simple stuff.  For example:

What is the greatest threat to your arteries?

  1. An elevated blood pressure of 160/90
  2. An elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol of 200
  3. An elevated helping of fried zucchini sticks
  4. An elevated amount of time spent on the couch

The answers are given at the end of the chapter, with some brief explanations.  With high expectations for the rest of the book, I headed into Chapter 2, which starts the bodily tour with the heart and arteries.

The authors make the analogy of the body being like a house, with each bodily subsystem similar to a system in the house:  heart and arteries like the plumbing, lungs like the ventilation system, etc.  That analogy works reasonably well, mostly because they don't try to take it too far.  Each chapter starts with the analogy, describing how the system in question relates to the subsystem in the house.  Then there's a discussion of the anatomy, including descriptions of what can go wrong.  Finally, each chapter has a "Live Younger Action Plan," which describes how to keep things in good working order.

The anatomical descriptions are very good: reasonably complete and given in layman's terms with some helpful illustrations.  I could do without some of the silliness in the pictures, and the lame jokes that average once per paragraph get old pretty fast.  But the information is useful.

The "Live Younger Action Plan" sections drive me bonkers.  There is some good advice that seems to be backed up by a lot of research, but there's also a bunch of advice that looks like it's backed up by anecdotal results.  And the authors don't do a very good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  They suggest so many different supplements that you could probably make lunch from the supplements alone.  There's no way I could remember all those pills, much less take them.

The thing that really bugs me about the Live Younger sections is that the authors throw around this concept called "Real Age," without defining very well how to apply it.  The "Real Age" is supposedly your body's perceived age.  For example, an exceptionally healthy 55-year-old can have the health and body of a 35-year-old.  It's an attractive and interesting concept, and it's described well in the first chapter, but then it's not applied well throughout the book.  The authors often include information about the Real Age effect of some behavior, for example:

A fifty-five-year-old with a LDL of 180 mg/dl who lowers it to 100 will make himself three years younger.

But there's no summary information, nor is there any rational way of combining the hundreds of such statements into some coherent whole.  On first reading, I'm pretty sure that if I followed all of their suggestions, I could have the body of an eighteen-year-old.  At least, according to a simplistic reading of the information.

The book ends with The Owner's Manual Diet, which looks like a reasonably healthy diet.  It doesn't look like any of the fad diets I've seen over the years.  As the authors put it, they're more interested in regulating important things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and your energy level.  Losing weight isn't the primary purpose of the diet, although it probably will happen if you follow the simple diet and exercise suggestions.

The writing, although probably very good compared to most doctors, is indifferent at best and sloppy in some places.  The editing of the book is absolutely terrible.  The copy editor should be fired.  There is an embarrassing number of missing words, and the sentence structure is just painful at times.  Any editor worth his salt would have nixed at least 80 percent of the lame jokes.

For all that I dislike about the book, I still give it a cautious recommendation because I think there's a lot to be gained from reading the book and a lot to be lost if you don't read the book.  The authors' primary points can be summed up in a few bullets:

Those points are made in Chapter 2 when talking about the heart and circulatory system.  They're driven home in almost every other chapter by descriptions of what happens when clogged arteries make it difficult or impossible for blood to get where it's supposed to go.  I, for one, endorse the major ideas even if I disagree with some of their recommendations.

In all, a good overview of the anatomy and some good solid advice for staying healthy.  Recommended, but be sure to engage your brain and do some thinking for yourself.  These guys are doctors with an agenda, and that agenda might not always have your best interests as the guiding principle.  You are in charge of your health.  Learn from this book, but don't treat it like The One Truth.