Impossible Medicine

Five Questions

A conversation with Sanjiv Chopra

What inspired you to write Doctor Chopra Says?

portrait of Sanjiv Chopra
professor of medicine, HMS

We’re barraged with information—and misinformation—about our health all the time. It’s difficult for people to sort fact from fiction: One day we’re told that coffee or vitamins are good for us; the next day we’re told they aren’t. Hundreds of new studies appear on various health issues nearly every day. Even doctors can’t wade through them all or know every important detail. That’s why my coauthor, Alan Lotvin, and I decided to write this book. We talked with patients, colleagues, and friends to come up with the most interesting and controversial health myths, and then set about researching 38 of them.

How might consumers avoid confusion and sift fact from hype?

The best piece of advice I can give is to delve further. Don’t just read the headline. Newspapers, magazines, television, and websites all want to grab your attention with sexy or dramatic sound bites, but there’s always more to the story. It’s important to understand the basics about different types of studies and how they’re conducted.

What’s the most surprising health fact you discovered while researching the book?

One of my favorites involves coffee. There’s been the perception that coffee is bad for us, and some research has linked its consumption to a higher risk of heart attacks, birth defects, and miscarriages. But most of the evidence is positive: Large studies suggest that drinking coffee regularly may protect us against a number of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and liver cirrhosis. As a hepatologist, I find that particularly intriguing and have started asking patients about their coffee consumption.

You talk about wanting people to live an “aced life.” What does that mean?

As a teacher, I’m partial to mnemonics. So I came up with one to describe what I consider a healthy lifestyle. A is for alcohol (in moderation) and aspirin (a low dose daily, with a doctor’s consent); C is for coffee; E is for exercise; D is for vitamin D3, the only supplement I recommend; L is for laughter; I is for finding ways to go inward, such as meditating; F is for fish; and E is for empathy. And then I add, “Don’t go nuts remembering this!” to remind them that eating a small quantity of nuts daily appears to increase one’s lifespan by two years. These tenets are what I recommend to patients and what I practice myself.

Educating consumers is important, but what about physicians?

As the School’s faculty dean for continuing education, I am privileged to develop courses with colleagues to educate doctors so that through their work, their patients can lead healthier, happier lives.

Image: Rose Lincoln, Harvard University News Office