image by: Stephanie Manch
Scientists form new ideas about health all the time. But changing our habits every time a headline suggests a change in conventional medical wisdom may be a direct path to a less healthy life.
Recently a friend—let's call her Zelda—told me she has stopped flossing her teeth. She heard that flossing makes no difference to dental health, so she's done with it.
Like most people, Zelda doesn't read science books, watch PBS science programming, or engage in any such activity. Instead, what new science-related opinions she forms come by way of the grapevine, digital or otherwise—a Facebook post here, a 30-second snippet on the TV news there, etc. In other words, she has little idea what she's talking about.
To be fair, while she couldn't trace its origin, her new belief about flossing didn't come out of the vacuum. Last year, an industrious Associated Press reporter named Jeff Donn asked the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture for evidence supporting the federal government's recommendation—in place since 1979—that flossing benefits dental health. Their answer? "When the federal government issued its latest dietary guidelines this year, the flossing recommendation had been removed, without notice. In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched, as required."
That's a pretty big "oops," and when the AP took it upon themselves to investigate 25 studies comparing use of a toothbrush alone with using a toothbrush along with flossing, the evidence in favor of the benefits of flossing was found to be "'weak, very unreliable,' of 'very low' quality, and carries 'a moderate to large potential for bias.'"
But Zelda might do well to keep flossing, because there's a difference—and potentially a huge one—between a supposedly health-enhancing practice's not being well studied and conclusive proof that it imparts no health benefits. Consider the obvious in the case of flossing. If foodstuff left on teeth contributes to tooth decay—a phenomenon not in dispute—then any foodstuff that brushing alone is insufficient to remove will make less of a contribution to decay if flossed away.
Like everyone who has flossed, Zelda's seen that flossing removes foodstuff that brushing alone does not. But Zelda is infected by the disease captured in the saying , "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." That is the peril of putting medical data into the popular sphere: people may actually alter healthy practices because they misinterpret the data—or a shadow of the data, as is most often the case—as encourage from the medical establishment to do so.
And no longer flossing one's teeth may be the least of it. Consider what Zelda might do with the information she gleans on Facebook from the recent research that generated headlines like CNN's "'Bad luck' mutations increase cancer risk more than behavior, study says." The story discusses recent research by Cristian Tomasetti and Dr. Bert Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins University, who, after digging through 423 international cancer databases with data culled from 17 cancer types affecting 4.8 billion people, "concluded that 65% of the differences in the risk of certain cancers is linked to stem cell divisions." In other words (Tomasetti's), "We discovered there's a third factor [inheritance and environment/lifestyle being the other two] that actually causes most of the mutations: random errors made during normal cell division."
Taking the results as gospel truth (which any scientist worth her salt will tell you is not the way even the most well executed scientific research should be regarded. Science is always provisional and theoretical), the new research gives the lie to the current paradigm that environment and life choices are the main factors contributing to whether or not you're going to get cancer.
That is certainly not to imply that lifestyle doesn't matter. As Susan Scutti, the author of the CNN article, points out,
Lifestyle factors still matter for cancer prevention.
Just one mutation is not sufficient to cause cancer—typically three or more mutations must occur, Tomasetti noted. If, say, your cells miscopy DNA and so cause two random mutations, a third mutation is still needed. Obesity, smoking, lack of exercise and poor eating habits might supply that necessary third gene defect that tips your body into a disease state.
The new study, then, does not let us off the hook: We play a role in protecting our good health.
Articles that, through no fault of the writers, may indirectly lead to unwise changes in behavior abound. "Breastfeeding Won’t Make Your Child Smarter In The Long Run, Study Says," screams a Huffington Post headline from late March. And despite a subheadline saying "The study does not, however, change doctors’ breastfeeding recommendations," it's easy to imagine that there may be prospective mothers out there who, like Zelda with flossing, may take the little knowledge they glean from their minimal exposure to the latest research as permission to abandon a healthy behavior.
But while flossing is not fun and giving up smoking is hard and breastfeeding can be trying at times, you don't have to look very far to find the likelihood that you may be better off not being so quick to give up healthy habits and ways of thinking. After all, the worst thing that can happen is that you're not contributing to better health. But the best thing that can happen is that you are.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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