A SON BORN two centuries ago in Limone, Italy, to Cristoforo Pomaroli and Rosa Giovanelli sheds some light on why modern health care costs so much. The boy's descendants in Limone carry a simple mutation in a protein of "good cholesterol" that prevents fat from clogging their arteries. With no fear of strokes or heart attacks, they eat red meat and sausage to their hearts' content while regularly living into their nineties.

"They eat like hell, the worst diet," says Dr. Cesare Sirtori, the professor at the University of Milan who discovered the Limone phenomenon.

Pharmacia A. B., a Swedish biotechnology firm, is supplying the laboratory version of the good cholesterol, Apolipoprotein A-1 Milano, or Apo Milano for short, to researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Pharmacia is gambling that their new product will become part of a regular treatment for heart disease. A Pharmacia director declares, "If it works, it would be revolutionary."

The excitement over Apo Milano highlights an important objective of the modern health-care client: to live a long life while eating like hell. This desire may assure revolutionary profits for Pharmacia and the sausage industry, but it doesn't bode well for health-care budgets.

And the craving for a hellish diet isn't the only item that breaks the health-care bank. For a fuller revelation of our health-care goals we need to turn our attention from the residents of Limone to a fellow out of the Srimad-Bhagavatam named Hiranyakasipu who took the trouble to conquer the entire universe for the fulfillment of his appetites. High-cholesterol foods were likely one of Hiranyakasipu's foibles, but his chief cravings were for gold (hiranya) and soft beds (kasipu). In other words, he wanted money and sex.

And a long life in which to enjoy them. In fact, he wanted his body to live eternally, a difficult proposal even had he followed a diet of sprouts, unrefined sugar, and other fat-free delights.

Hiranyakasipu conceded offhand, as we do, that no one could make him live forever, yet strove, as we do, to get rid of the conditions of his mortality. Pharmacia A. B. had not yet incorporated, so he instead managed to earn nonbiotech blessings protecting himself from every conceivable cause of death. So he couldn't be killed during the day or night, indoors or out, on land, on water, or in the air. He couldn't be laid low by man, beast, or weapons.

Hiranyakasipu died anyway, but his aspirations are alive and well in the field of health care. Instead of man, beast, and weapons, we seek protection from cancer, AIDS, and heart disease; instead of immunity indoors or out, we beg not to die during youth or old age. If only we could check each of our countless afflictions, then maybe we could stop the big one, death.

As tiny Hiranyakasipus we are suckers for every Apo Milano that rolls off the assembly line. If we have the money we gladly pay the price; if we don't we expect someone else to foot the bill. Our body, consisting of the mind and five senses, dictates that we battle the enemies of physical immortality at any cost. The mind and senses thus become six enemies that steal the authentic wealth of the human body the ability to understand our eternal self. Our dreamed-of indestructible material body is a perverted reflection of that real self, described in the Bhagavad-gita (2.23, 25): "The self can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. It is said that the self is invisible, inconceivable, and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body."

A long, healthy life for realizing the self is a fairly reasonable desire. Though neither longevity nor health can be guaranteed, health care towards self-realization could be a sane and affordable objective. A long, healthy life of indiscriminate sense indulgence, on the other hand, is far less reasonable and far more prone to hefty medical bills, even if you are from Limone, Italy. And the tacit desire of modern health-care patients, the tacit promise of the health-care industry an eternal life of material sense enjoyment is unaffordable in any sense.

This fantasy of immortality steals away our health-care dollars and our valuable time, making the purveyors and consumers of snake oil look sensible by contrast. Proud as we may be of advancements in health care, we have made no progress at all towards slowing the afflictions that besiege us from all directions. As Prahlada, Hiranyakasipu's self-realized son, told his father shortly before his father's death, we are following an old, old pattern: "In former times there were many fools like you who did not conquer the six enemies that steal away the wealth of the body. These fools were very proud, thinking, 'I have conquered all enemies in all ten directions.'" (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.8.10)

Foolish promises of conquest will continue, giving us ample opportunity to strive for victory over the enemies of our material body. Dr. Sirtori himself has another card up his sleeve. It turns out that sausage isn't the only vice the residents of Limone enjoy into their nineties. "They are almost all smokers," he confides.

Pharmacia A. B., take notice.