Mad Science

Sorting through the chaos of health-news reporting.

IF YOU THINK nation building in Iraq is complicated, try wrestling with the anarchy of health-news reporting. These days, every published scientific study is front-page or wire-service worthy, and the result generates a cacophony of dos and don'ts that are supposed to lead us all to better living habits. Mossback has been reading the health news the past couple of weeks, and he has come to the conclusion that there is no law 'n' order in science, nor in the reporting of incremental research.

First, Mossback was whiplashed by two back-to-back Reuters stories. One caused relief. What journalist wouldn't be thrilled by the headline "A Drink a Day Improves Overall Health"? In this story, an Israeli researcher had concluded that small quantities of alcohol, taken regularly, measurably improve the cardiovascular system. Before I could pour a celebratory scotch, elation was undercut by the second story: "Regular Drinking May Raise Rectal Cancer Risk." Bummer. This study, produced in Denmark, apparently shows that many people who have two or more drinks per day are really going to wish they hadn't spent so much time on barstools.

Mossback was left pondering this dilemma: a healthy heart or a rum bum?

And there was more good news/bad news on that front, er, back. A few days later, Reuters reported, "Office Rectal Exam for Colorectal Cancer Doubted." In a paper presented by an Australian researcher during "Digestive Disease Week" in Orlando, Fla. (which, I assume, naturally follows spring break), Dr. Louise Langmead concluded that the "office-based digital rectal exams" we all know "may not even be useful in spotting disease." So the bad news is most of us, like alien abductees, have been lubed and probed for nada. The good news is you can take this story to your next checkup and stop the madness. Or not.

There were two other interesting developments on the colorectal front this month, according to the wire services. One was that a study in the Lancet suggests that a high-fiber diet lessens the risk of colon cancer. But, perversely, the same day Reuters put out a story headlined "Big Eaters May Live Longer with Colorectal Cancer." It was based on a study in Paris that suggests that while a high-fat diet might lead to colorectal cancer, once you have it, you'll live longer if you pork out. "The researchers found that people who ate the most caloriesfrom carbohydrates, protein, or fatwere more than 80 percent more likely to be alive five years after a cancer diagnosis. . . . " And, I kid you not, this serious study was published in a journal titled Gut.

Of course, too much eating is itself a problem, for some people anyway. In mid-May, The Associated Press reported that obesity in the U.S. is reported to cost more than $93 billion per year, according to the Web site of the journal Health Affairs ("The Policy Journal of the Health Sphere"). Sounds terrible, but since that money is mostly spent in this country, wouldn't it be equally accurate to say that fat people pump $93 billion into the health care industrya boon for our ailing economy? Not only that, but what about the billions the obese spend on food, drink, large clothes, diet books, infomercial exercise equipment, and bigger cars?

Mossback is a longtime contributor to the obesity industry. I like to think that in my own way, I am helping to build a bigger America. Only terrorists would have a problem with that.

ANOTHER BROUHAHA also demonstrates the bizarreness of science and health reporting. The British Medical Journal published a new study this month suggesting that there is little evidence that secondhand smoke is harmful. Such a finding cuts against the current consensus. The study was immediately attacked by the British Medical Associationthe entity that published the controversial study in the first place. The BMA called the study "fundamentally flawed." Well, if it was, why publish it? This suggests major research is needed into finally solving the condition where the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.

In another smoking-related development, scientists are reportedly trying to develop a new "electronic nose" that could detect by smell whether or not a person has lung cancer. But is that really necessary? Can't a normal human nose essentially make the same early diagnosis if it simply smells "tobacco" on someone's breath?

PERHAPS A CLEARER picture of how health works will emerge from the results of another new study, just being undertaken at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson. Hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars will be funneled through the National Institutes of Health to pay for, according to the Arizona Daily Star, "the first scientifically designed study of the role of prayer in the healing of surgical patients ever done in this country." Patients recovering from heart surgery will be targeted with prayer, and their recovery will be compared with other, nontargeted patients. The prayers will be provided by practitioners of Johrei, a nondenominational spiritual healing technique that originated in Japan and purports to channel "universal energy" through prayer. Perhaps the next study will examine the role human sacrifice can play.

The Tucson study is probably a good idea, though, because based on what I've been reading, lifestyle decisionseven informed onesare pretty much all faith-based anyway.

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