Savior in a Bottle

Kids and Cholesterol

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines, urging its members to "aggressively screen and medicate for high cholesterol in children."

If the prospect of commercials featuring child actors hawking cholesterol-reducing drugs seems outlandish, it should not come as a surprise—not in a culture that looks to pills as saviors.

Citing "growing evidence that the first signs of heart disease show up in childhood," the AAP recommended cholesterol screening in children as young as two. And it called for the use of cholesterol-reducing drugs, known as "statins," for children as young as eight!

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A member of the AAP's guideline committee says "we are in an epidemic." Since I have not heard about 8-year-olds keeling over from heart attacks, presumably the "epidemic" he is referring to is the fact that 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese.

Whatever the "epidemic" may be, the guidelines prompted an immediate and critical response from doctors. One pediatric cardiologist drily noted that there is no data that show statins will help kids prevent heart attacks later in life, nor is there any "on the possible side effects of taking statins for 40 or 50 years."

Other doctors worried that the emphasis on medications would draw attention away from "common-sense changes in diet and exercise." As one doctor told the New York Times, "To be frank, I'm embarrassed for the A.A.P. today." He predicted that the recommendations would prompt a "backlash."

Let me be among the first to lash back. While the guidelines do acknowledge the importance of diet and exercise, what most people will take away from the AAP recommendations is the fact that we now have another pill to fix our kids. Instead of telling Johnny to put down the Twinkie, or back away from the Xbox and go out and play, all mom or dad has to do is hand him a pill.

Political scientist Peter Augustine Lawler has written about the way we increasingly turn to biotechnology—including medication—to shield ourselves from the human condition and, I might add, from the consequences of our own actions.

For example, if a boy acts up in school or has trouble focusing, our first instinct is to medicate him. Is it any wonder, then, that instead of examining the cultural habits that contribute to the rise in childhood obesity, we propose to put our kids on statins?

Our growing dependence on pills reminds me of the use of soma, the mood-altering anesthetic in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which satisfied every human need and kept people quiet while the all-powerful government took over. Just look at the enormous popularity of antidepressants. While many people genuinely need these drugs, for many others they are a shield against ordinary sadness and unhappiness—the very things that make us examine and change our lives. As Lawler wrote, "common sense and studies show" that "bad moods" are "indispensable for our species real perpetuation and flourishing."

Of course, as Lawler points out, all biotechnological efforts to "eradicate human misery" must fail.

Eventually, we have to come to face-to-face with our true condition—and the kind of Savior you do not find at a pharmacy.

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