Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, is busy under normal circumstances but he's about to get crazy busy, anchoring his first film for HBO Monday — "One Nation Under Stress" (9 p.m.) — and a six-part CNN series launching April 13, "Chasing Life," based on his 2007 book of the same name.
Probably television's best-known medical reporter — he also contributes to "60 Minutes" — Gupta, a neurosurgeon with Grady Health in Atlanta, joined CNN in 2001. He subsequently embedded with the Navy's "Devil Docs," performing brain surgery on many grievously wounded soldiers in Iraq, and was later embedded with the Army's 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan in 2009. A Michigan native, he got his M.D. at the University of Michigan Medical School.
"One Nation Under Stress" is thoughtful, provocative and deep look at the causes of stress and its destructive consequences. It's also predicated on one sobering fact: American life expectancy is now shorter than all other major developed countries. For a few more thoughts about this vitally important subject, I recently spoke to Gupta. Excerpts from our phone interview have been edited and condensed for brevity.
Not to be too glib, but isn't watching CNN — not to mention MSNBC and Fox — one of the great contributing causes to stress?
It's a fair question [and] to your point, when [stress] is relentless, when you are constantly immersed in it, is when it starts to become problematic.
There's everyday stress that all of us have and then there's systemic and destructive stress. It's all on a spectrum but how do we know when we've drifted into the red zone?
When that level of stress starts to interfere with your ability to make good judgments [or] when you can say, "I am not getting a break from stress." Not all stress is bad and in and of itself probably necessary. But it's the chronic relentless nature of it [and] we now known that the prefrontal cortex [of the brain] changes in response to chronic stress [where] it will dwindle away. What surprised us is that just getting even a little break from stress can allow that part of the prefrontal cortex to begin to repair itself.
Stress is pandemic now, but wasn't it much worse in the '30s, and then that generation went on to win a world war?
What got us all focused on [this film] was that for three years in a row now, life expectancy for [the white working middle class] has declined and that hasn't happened in a hundred years, since the First World War and the flu epidemic. There have been spikes in premature death — drug overdoses, suicide, liver cirrhosis, all what is called "the death of despair." We've had tough tragic times throughout our history but this is totally unique.
To an extent the film conflates the opioid epidemic with "stress." But isn't that more a function of addiction than of stress?
I certainly don't want to discount addiction, but our approach as doctors is asking that with opioids, suicide and liver cirrhosis, what is the unifying factor between all these things? If a doctor wants to find a root cause, that's what we're doing here as well — what's causing the pain in the first place? Is it an existential pain, or the idea of broken dreams? This group of people [profiled in the film] was supposed to inherit the country, instead saw jobs leaving the country and wages declining.
The film doesn't deeply get into prescriptions but is there one? Are these problems simply out of people's control — back to that "unpredictability" and "lack of control" nexus?
There was always the belief system that your kids would always have a better life than you did, and unwittingly we ended up passing expectations to the next generation and that can be a much more stressful thing for that generation that we realize. [But] I don't think this is forever [and] there are things we can do as individuals to help mediate stress.
You certainly get into that in "Chasing Life" — the CNN series about how other countries handle health and well-being.
I'm a western-trained doctor but now the question in my mind, being in my 43rd year of life, is [asking] why there are other countries that live happier and longer lives? I wanted to immerse myself in these places [like India, in the second episode] so I could understand what they accomplished, and the real secret to what has shaped them.
OK, last question: If you could tell the reader one thing he or she could do to alleviate the stress in his or her life, what would that be?
Find time where you can truly take some control of your life, where you are not dictated to or beholden to someone or something. I'm not sure there's one answer for everyone, but to say "this is my time today." I know it's not easy for everybody, but if you can find that time — it can be just ten, fifteen minutes a day — you can change your brain as a result.