Feature Archive

Denying Health Issues Can Be Deadly

Getting past fear and excuses are the first steps towards preventing health issues before they go too far.

By Cherie Berkley, MS
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

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 obesity, it was, "'I tried. I stopped eating sweets but nothing's happened,' which I know isn't true because I see evidence that there were sweets around; the cookie bags, the potato chips, so I know she's not doing as well as she could," Edwards says.

Edwards tells WebMD she has expressed concerns to her 60-year-old mother about the health issues and their long-term toll. "She has hypertension and diabetes, and she's obese, and she had to have both knees replaced. It was told to her that if she lost the weight, a lot of her ailments would go away, and she hasn't been able to do it," she says. "Specifically, there's denial around her diabetes in that she doesn't think she has it anymore although she has not cut sweets or sugar out of her diet."

She says the obesity issue has always been a sensitive one. "She didn't want to talk about it and she didn't want to exercise. So that's all there was to it. It just wasn't talked about."

Warning Signs Are There for a Reason

It is common for people to get the cold shoulder when they express concern about their loved one's health problems. But if you're the one doing the denying, shrugging off red flags from your body now can limit your options for treatment later.

"I think that sometimes we don't want to face the reality that our health has changed to the negative," Jeanette Newton-Keith, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the department of gastroenterology at University of Chicago, tells WebMD. "Many conditions can be prevented or reversed if treated early, but [over time] some progress to the point where they require medication, surgery, or other interventions. So it's important to not ignore the warning signs for health in general."

Some general warning signs that should not be ignored include:

Uncontrolled risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity

  • Wounds that don't heal
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blood in the stool , or inability to pass stool
  • Pain or fatigue that prevents you from doing normal activities
  • Discomfort, pressure, heaviness, or pain in the chest, arm, or below the breastbone
  • Lasting numbness and weakness
  • Unexplained changes in weight
  • Changes in appetite
  • Loss of vision

Family members, particularly spouses, are usually the sources of intervention but it's usually well- intended. But keep in mind, while they are often the ones scolded or ignored for trying to help, Newton-Keith notes their support is vital to a person's success at getting to the doctor and complying with any prescribed treatment.

What's to Fear?

So why is denial so common? Fear is often an underlying current behind the excuses people give about their health issues, says cardiologist Amit Khera, MD, director of the program in preventive cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

"A lot of it is fear that people think that if they don't know [what is wrong with them], then they're OK and once they know, then they're not OK. ... Obviously, that couldn't be true."