When is More Not Always Better?

Advances in science that raise this important question

Posted Sep 18, 2012

According to a recent Reuter's report, scientists found that when the active ingredient in Viagra ( Sildenafil) was given to mice exposed to conditions mimicking long-distance travel, their internal clocks readjusted twice as fast. The National Academy of Sciences documented a similar outcome in another study when Hamsters were administered low doses of Sidenafil. Results showed the hamsters given the drug were able to reset their circadian rhythms more quickly than those who were not. Both these studies corroborate anecdotal evidence provided by people taking ED medications who report quicker recovery time following travel across time zones.

Viagra, usually thought of as synonymous with erectile dysfunction in men, appears to be effective in both males and females when it comes to resetting our biological clocks. And, while these findings as just preliminary, pharmaceutical companies are very optimistic about its use to reduce the symptoms of jet lag for the everyday traveler.

No one may be more optimistic about this research than comedy writers -- Saturday Night Live will have a heyday! But I have some trouble with the idea of another substance being used to keep us 'up and going' to meet the needs of our fast paced world. It's less about Viagra being used to treat symptoms beyond those for which it was originally prescribed, but more about the implication of what will come next: Pills that allow us to function without sleep? Medications that increases our capacity to multitask—so we can tweet, text and email all at the same time? When do advances in science enable us to do more, but alter the quality of our lives so that we ultimately have less?

It's a question similar to one I have asked while examining the impact that new and improved cosmetic surgical procedures have on our ability to head off aging. With more sophisticated techniques that can target specific features and have more subtle effects, there are more people using them with better results. While there are advantages to these improvements—greater accessibility, fewer botched faces and bodies—many believe we have created a cosmetic slippery slope, with one procedure often leading to another and an anti-aging culture that has unrealistic expectations. As people get older, too many feel compelled to look younger.

There are other examples. With increased availability and improvement to ADHD medications, we are seeing a generation of children relying on prescription drugs to keep them from being distracted. A good thing, when a child is truly diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. But, when kids view Ritalin, Adderall or Concerta as 'magic potions' to score higher on SATs or get better grades at school, we have to ask; when are advances in medicine fostering a culture that feels compelled to achieve success at all costs? A recent Wall Street Journal article "Opting out of the 'Rug Rat Race'" raised a similar issue, wondering if the pressure to compete in today’s "contest for early academic achievement" actually sidetracks our children from gaining the skills they need to be successful adults.

The list—and concerns—go on. What about the impact of advances in performance enhancing drugs on athletes and the culture of sports? Lance Armstrong and Melky Cabrera—two stars in the sports world—were just recently added to the growing list of names of those accused of misusing steroids and HGH. The desire to be exceptional, to be faster, stronger and more powerful, is driving athletes to rise above the rest at the expense of their own health, not only ruining their celebrated careers, but also our belief in authenticity in sports.

Back to Viagra. It is one among the improved erectile dysfunction medicines (along with Cialis and Levitra) that now has men feeling compelled to go at it all night, at any time, at any age. Then there's the popularity of eyelash enhancers (like SmartLash or Latisse) that has some women feeling inadequate if they haven't treated their thinning lashes. And, of course there is Botox being used by millions to smooth away wrinkles. As aging becomes increasingly viewed as a disease, a huge industry of products has been created to 'cure' it. New, more and improved—technically, yes—but does that always mean better?

While advances in science no doubt help us in countless ways, and in no way am I suggesting we impede the development of medicines that improve the quality of our lives, we need to keep a watchful eye on the cultural pressures some unwittingly create. Perhaps Viagra prescribed to pilots will make travel safer, give them and flight attendants greater comfort as they cross time zones. Perhaps it will help those who keep our global economy thriving a chance to be even more successful if they can keep working without a break.

But, I raise caution as we keep promoting new ways to move faster, stay younger, smarter, fitter longer—without stepping back to take a break to enjoy being exactly where we are.

What do you think about advances in science that help us keep up with our fast paced world?

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.

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