Health news is just plain nuts

David Holahan

April 12, 1993|By David Holahan

REMEMBER when an apple a day kept the doctor away? Those were the days: before Alar, of course. Before we knew it was also a good idea to ingest the following daily: half an aspirin, a jumbo oat bran muffin, one glass of white wine (no more, no less -- and watch out for lead traces in the foil cap), all the polyunsaturates we can stomach and on and on. The latest health news is just plain nuts. Yes, plain old nuts -- especially walnuts -- can lower cholesterol even though they are fattening, studies show.

Confused? Who wouldn't be? It seems like every day now some new study or other has "startling" news about a new regimen that will prolong our sojourn on this veil of tears -- or, conversely, fill our bodies with festering carcinomas. It's a strain simply keeping up with this steady stream of data, much less wrestling with the implications.

My local newspaper is kind enough to print the latest bulletins from Science- land on page 2. Here's a sampling of what I have learned so far this year: dreaming could kill me; lesbians face a higher risk of breast cancer; vasectomies have been linked to prostate cancer; video games cause seizures; mammograms for women under 50 are, like so much of modern medical practice, a waste of time and money; cellular phones cause cancer; and training in thin mountain air might not help me win a gold meal, even though many Olympic track events have been won by high-altitude denizens.

I don't mean to appear ungrateful, but enough already! I like studies as much as the next person, but where is it written that we have to endure a study a day? The public may have a right to know, but what about our reciprocal right not to know about all this folderol? We can't get away from it nowadays. It's in the newspapers, on Dan Rather, Good Morning America, Oprah, in our junk mail, etc. If we miss it somehow, co-workers or our kids fill us in. Chicken skin is bad for me, my 6-year-old informed me the other night at dinner. The little dickens.

In time, it may turn out that chicken skin is just what the doctor ordered. Remember when butter was a no-no, so we all switched to the alternative: unsalted, no cholesterol, "lite" corn oil spread? Well, break out the butter again. Margarine, new studies show, may kill us just as fast, if not faster than our old favorite.

Actually, one reason there are so many studies today is that half of them are contradicting previously accepted scientific findings. Three years ago a report indicated that women who were heavy around the hips -- i.e., pear-shaped -- were less likely to contract breast cancer than women who were heavy in the waist, or apple-shaped. This year a new study insists that the aforementioned is, in effect, an old wives' tale -- or a recent wives' tale. Make that a recent scientists' tale. I'm eagerly awaiting the headline that proclaims "Study Shows Old Wives Were Right All Along!"

Obviously, not all scientific information is bad for us. It is good to know, for example, exactly how harmful cigarette smoke is for both smokers and nonsmokers. In addition to its already documented ill effects, smoking was recently linked to a 30 percent boost in a person's chances of getting leukemia.

But so much new "information" hardly seems useful at all. Dreams, we have just learned, can send the body's "sympathetic nervous system" into "overdrive," presumably putting pressure on our achy-breaky hearts. People dream the most just before they wake up, and heart attacks are more common in the morning than at any other time, doctors point out.

Very interesting. But so what if dreams kill? I'm halfway through this depressing account when I read this: "Even if dreaming does prove to be bad for weak hearts, there may not be a lot anyone can do about it." Now there's some news I can use! I immediately stop reading the idiotic article.

Here's a depressing study on depression for you: Researchers found that only 1 percent of Americans born before 1905 had suffered a major depression by age 75, whereas 6 percent of those born since 1955 were already bummed out by age 24. Ah, to be young again -- and clinically depressed!

I wonder if anyone had thought to do a study on the effects of all these studies on otherwise perfectly happy, well-adjusted human beings. Maybe we know too damned much today anyway.

Perhaps you saw the data from a while back indicating that our planet is terminal. Yup, Mother Earth has just 100 million years to live. You probably started worrying about your great-grandchildren to the 15th power. Well, stop worrying. It turns out that the august scientists miscalculated slightly, by vTC about a billion years. I know used car salesmen who are more reliable than that. Maybe people are having heart attacks at dawn because they know they have to get up and read the newspaper.

For the past few weeks I've skipped right over Page 2 of my local rumor mill. I'm still eating chicken skins, and I feel great.

David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.

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