Sat, May 10, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Healthy skepticism and media beat-ups

The papers are full of health scares. But why do we believe contradictory and tenuous stories while ignoring simple medical advice?

By Robert Hudson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Broccoli fights cancer, says the British Journal of Cancer. This worries me because I remember vividly that once upon a time, circa 2001, broccoli was carcinogenic. Back then, it contained acetaldehyde, which was A Bad Thing Of Some Kind, and quite prominent in health stories until we forgot about it. Luckily, I don’t use deodorant or incense, but phone masts, bacon and the rest of the fashionable carcinogens will probably get me if I live long enough.

Or they will if the endless health scares in the press are to be believed. But despite their repetitive, contradictory and medically tenuous nature, people pay attention to these lists of absurd things that are supposedly bad for you. They even act upon them — randomly banning bra underwiring or broccoli from their lives — while remaining resistant to constant, consistent and proven advice to eat, drink and smoke less and exercise more. Why?

Ben Goldacre, who as well as being a doctor, writes a column entitled Bad Science, says the lure of the health scare story for the media lies in that fact that during the “golden age of medicine, miracle cures and sinister hidden scares really were being discovered.” Now, “we move ahead by small incremental understandings of large numbers of modest risk factors, but journalists haven’t found a way to write about that, so every fractional research finding has to be crowbarred into the ‘miracle-cure-hidden-scare’ template.”

The basic problem is that we’re so healthy. As Catherine O’Leary, a doctor working in Kent points out: “Medicine has made tremendous strides in curing diseases with antibiotics, in treating illnesses such as heart disease and depression, and in preventing illnesses such as diarrhea, measles, small pox and now, possibly, heart disease that people are less accustomed to ill health all around them.”

For this reason, she thinks that “ill health, mental or physical, has developed a significant stigma that people are anxious to avoid — especially if this may convey a loss of status.”

On the other hand, people might be bothered about their health, but they don’t want to stop doing things they like.

O’Leary explains that, in her experience, heavy drinkers are aware of the risks but are so “passionate not to be deprived of drink” that they hide the habit or avoid doctors entirely. Smokers are often in a simpler form of denial.

“I frequently encounter smokers who are concerned for their health, but who won’t discuss their habit,” she says, even after she shows them a calculator on her computer screen that displays the enormous effect smoking has on life expectancy.

“It only has a small effect in the success I have getting them to quit.” she says.

Kieran McCafferty, a renal doctor working in central London, says that people want a scapegoat: “They don’t want to exercise, because they’re lazy, but they want to say, ‘But I stopped using deodorant!’, which is like giving up chewing gum for Lent.”

McCafferty also says that health scares are so powerful because most of them relate to cancer. Patients are more likely to die of heart disease, but they can understand and accept a blood clot blocking a vessel and killing them. It doesn’t feel as personal as something growing inside the body.

“With cancer,” he says, “your body has turned against you.”

His experience of telling patients they have serious illnesses bears this out.

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