When it comes to health, I’m skeptical of willpower. Sure, I talk to my students about personal responsibility, but when it comes to the health of populations, I look for big fixes more than for small acts of will.
That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that two old physician friends had decided to start taking, as a preventive measure, some of the medications often included in what the field has dubbed the “polypill.” My friends are both top doctors in their 60s, with good diet and lifestyle, and this is now part of their personal health regimen.
A polypill might include any of several things: a baby aspirin, a statin to rebalance cholesterol, a drug to control blood pressure and one to lower blood sugar. (A version less comprehensive than this is available online with a doctor’s prescription at Polypill.com.) Whatever the combination, the doses are low, so it’s relatively safe. It’s like a multivitamin, but with serious medications. Some public-health advocates now argue that everyone over 50 should be on one.
You read that right: everyone. If we had perfectly healthy lifestyles, these drugs would not be needed, but we don’t. And even if we did, the drugs might add further protection.
One review of the research on polypills comes from Melvin Lafeber and his colleagues at the University Medical Center Utrecht (Netherlands). Writing in Current Hypertension Reports in April, they found reason to think that treatment might help higher-risk individuals and urged more clinical trials. If moderate- and high-risk people benefit, “the idea of offering treatment to everybody older than 50 years might raise widespread interest,” they wrote. The polypill, they concluded, “could be an important tool to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease” and make it more likely that patients take the necessary drugs.