A Health Warning
Guest Post by Sandra Clayton
Is anybody else fed up with bulletins about the latest medical research? Every time you turn on TV or radio nowadays, or open a newspaper or magazine, there they are. And they seem to come in three increasingly irritating forms.
One sort is the scientific breakthrough which will mean vastly-improved treatment for current scourges such as heart disease, cancer, stroke or dementia. But when you get to the end of the item you find that it is going to be five years before any benefits will be available. It’s always five years because that seems to be the accepted length of time it takes to complete a research program and produce a report on its findings. By which time, of course, most people will have forgotten all about it.
However, this has been going on long enough, and my memory is good enough, to make me question how many of these promised boons to mankind ever come to fruition because too often what is missing is peer review. This is when other scientists in the field get to assess the findings of a particular piece of research, not least by repeating its experiments to see if they produce the same results. If they don’t, the “research” will never amount to anything.
The truth is, the information explosion generated by the new technologies of the past decade has created a demand for ever more material. In the old days it used to be called, “feeding the beast”―providing non-stories to satisfy the appetite of the news media. With 24-hour news programs, and almost unlimited capacity online, that appetite has become voracious. So the rising interest in health is a boon, enabling attention-grabbing headlines like “A cure for cancer in five years?” and “Keeping Alzheimer’s at bay!”
Sadly, in some cases these beguiling findings are produced using a very small sample and insufficient scientific rigor. And instead of being published in the profession’s own journals, which has traditionally been the case, findings often go direct to the mass media. Once the theories have been subjected to peer review and proper protocols, however, a lot of this research sinks without trace.
My second bête noir is scientific research leading to dietary advice. Dietary advice is good. What drives me mad is that they keep changing their minds. Once upon a time I was urged repeatedly by government-approved advertisements to go to work on an egg. Nice image, setting off each day after a healthy breakfast provided by nice healthy eggs, Nature’s very own convenience food. Several decades later we were warned not to eat more than two eggs a week because of the threat to our cholesterol levels.
Then it was cheese, rich in calcium and essential to the development of strong, healthy bones and teeth. Cheese got the heave-ho as well, because of cholesterol. Then, after years in the wilderness, eggs and cheese became welcome again. After that it was salmon. Eat lots of it, they said, richest source of omega oils going. Er, perhaps not, they recanted a very short time later. “Atlantic pollution―you know, heavy metals and all that―maybe once a week for the wild stuff.” And the farmed variety? “Bacterial infections from overcrowding. Ditto once a week.” Give me strength!
I got so sick of the vagueness and the contradictions that I simply gave up reading the health pages in any of the print media. With luck, should I live so long, I might ultimately benefit from one of the genuine medical discoveries. As for the vacillations of the dietary advice, the maxim “moderation in all things” has served me well enough this far.
So, having removed myself from the health columns, I got really angry when I started being waylaid with health issues on an almost daily basis by radio and television news. Particularly maddening is a third form of medical research and one the broadcast media seems to favor. This involves making predictions about possible future illnesses from physical characteristics.
The one that enraged me to the point where I feared I might be having a stroke involved thigh dimensions. Some enterprising little research team had come up with “evidence” that people with fatter thighs have a better chance than those with thinner thighs of not developing heart disease (or it might have been cancer, stroke, or dementia, I was too apoplectic to notice). It even gave actual dimensions, so you could rush off and find a tape measure.
OK. So tell me! What are you supposed to do if you don’t measure up? It is received wisdom that you can’t sculpt yourself with diet or exercise. You either put weight on, or you take it off. And in my experience it’s never in the places you want. So how do the slender-legged among us achieve this ideal thigh dimension without risking obesity for the rest of the body? And would it work anyway? Do you have to be born that way? The item didn’t say.
Don’t we have enough to worry about already―recession, terrorism, the resurgence of drug-resistant bird flu, rising sea levels, world poverty, dwindling resources, belly fat and the planet toppling over through over-population―without somebody with a research grant and a warped sense of humor finding us something else?
I hadn’t been so cross since it was revealed to an already over-stressed world that people had a greater/lesser risk of heart disease/cancer/stroke/dementia if their middle fingers were the same length. Not even diet or exercise is going to change that! So what’s the point? Apart from fillers on a quiet news day? And where do these highly-educated people in white coats get funding for these arcane endeavors anyway? It makes you wonder what possible use can be made of this stuff, and by whom.
Call me paranoid if you must, but the only use I can think of is actuarial. So if the next health or life insurance application form you fill in has questions like, “Are your middle fingers the same length?” or “Please state the circumference of your thighs” you may be going down in their files as a potential candidate for heart disease, cancer, stroke or dementia and then your premiums will go up and so will your blood pressure, which could be a precursor to heart attack or stroke.
The way I see it, medical research can seriously damage your health.
In the late ‘90s Sandra Clayton and her husband David sold up their home and set sail in a 40-foot catamaran. Since then they have covered around 40,000 miles and visited more than twenty countries. Nobody needs to sail to enjoy her books. They are written for anyone interested in travel, people and places or a different way of life.
Sandra’s first two books about their travels, Dolphins Under My Bed and Something Of The Turtle, were originally self-published as PODs and both were Finalists in the travel category of The National Best Books Awards sponsored by USA Book News. The latter also achieved second place under general non-fiction in The Written Art Awards sponsored by Rebecca’s Reads.
Both books have since been taken up by Bloomsbury Publishing, with Dolphins published in May 2011 and Turtles – now under the new title Turtles In Our Wake – in March 2012.
To learn more: www.sandraclayton.Web.officelive.com