Buy Broccoli Futures, Sell Vitamins

April 19, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- She is standing in the kitchen talking to her vitamin pills. This is not something that the woman normally does.

On an average morning you might find her wrapped in the very same blue bathrobe lecturing the squirrel who has taken over her bird feeder. You would not find her having a heart-to-heart talk with beta carotene or vitamin E.

But today the newspaper that she generally takes with a cup of coffee and a chaser of little pills has dropped another dose of uncertainty into her morning regimen. The wonderful little world of vitamin supplements has been thrown into question. The A's and the E's that are supposed to protect her from the Big C may be shirking their alphabetical duty and even hastening the Big D.

In Finland they studied some 29,000 men between 50 and 69 years old who were parceled out doses of vitamins or placebos. It was suspected that the vitamins would help block lung cancer. But the smokers who took beta carotene didn't decrease that risk; they increased it. Those who took vitamin E mildly reduced their chance of prostate and colo-rectal cancer, but mildly increased their chance of strokes that involved head bleeding.

Swell. The woman hasn't been so appalled by revisionist medicine since the day she dumped three boxes of oat bran into the compost heap. She hasn't been so confused since she found out that ''free radicals'' had nothing to do with politics and ''anti-oxidants'' were not a laundry bleach.

So there she is, at her counter, delivering a morning soliloquy to uncertainty. ''To swallow or not to swallow. That is the question.'' The vitamins say nothing.

Frankly, this woman hadn't given Finnish men a thought since she met a tour group of them in the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Finns charted weekend flights for the express purpose of drinking vodka until they passed out in what was then Leningrad.

She has no idea how many of those drunken tourists were also subjects for the study or what the interaction of vodka and beta carotene produces. Nor is it clear whether research on Finnish men who smoke has any relevance for an American woman who doesn't and is unlikely to ever be at risk for prostate cancer.

But this tale is one of an endless number of twists and turns in the plot line of modern medicine. It's what makes health care seem more like a soap opera -- As the Research Turns -- than like doctor's orders.

There seems to be some sort of planned obsolescence now to medical news. Today's sure cure is tomor row's poison pellet. Fresh research has a sell-by date that is shorter than the one on the cereal box.

The studies that come tumbling out of research factories do more than just debunk their predecessors. They offer up platters of unappealing options and confusing odds. Instead of getting a prescription to follow, you get multiple choices to pick from.

If you're that smoking Finn, vitamin E may help prevent prostate cancer and give you a better chance for a bleeding stroke. But if you're a menopausal American woman, estrogen may protect against heart disease and give you a better shot at breast cancer.

If you run a lot, your bones may get brittle but your heart will stay strong. If you drink wine, you could wreck your liver but lower your bad cholesterol. Which is different from your good cholesterol in ways that escape us.

If you go out in the sun, you may get skin cancer. If you stay inside you may get depressed. If you worry about all this, you'll get stressed out, which definitely is not good for your health. And when all is said and done, disease may have less to do with your diet than with your DNA.

Is it any wonder that the woman in this kitchen hasn't yet had time to figure out Managed Health Care? It's a full-time job managing her own health care.

As for her ode to the tablets full of beta carotene and vitamin A? Well, if medicine were in the commodities market, this week's savvy investor would be buying broccoli futures and selling supplements short.

So for the moment, she'll cap the vitamins and bring on the Broccoli Breakfast Crispies and wait for the next medical installment. With luck, those nasty little researchers will keep their statistics off her chocolate.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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