Monday, August 8, 2011

And Speaking of Health...

Last week I wrote about Alzheimer’s Disease and how, like many other ailments, the evidence points more and more to common-sense preventive behaviors:  diet, exercise, etc.  Now I see an article about people in Indonesia, ignoring red warning signs to lie across railroad tracks to absorb the electricity in an effort to cure diseases.  Later in the article it goes on to say, “Pseudo-medical treatments are wildly popular in many parts of Asia — where rumors about those miraculously cured after touching a magic stone or eating dung from sacred cows can attract hundreds, sometimes thousands.”

It’s easy for Americans see such information and feel sorry for these people while at the same time feeling smugly superior – eating dung from sacred cows, indeed!  Yet, how many of us have the same kind of primitive, throw-the-virgin-in-the-volcano approach to our own health.  Dietary supplement sales in the US are more than $5 billion per year, despite the fact that they are not held to the same testing standards as pharmaceuticals in terms of both efficacy and side effects.  Other companies advertise magical sounding ingredients in their foods.  Let’s stock up on some of those probiotics, make sure Grandma drinks her Ensure, substitute energy drinks for sleep, take a chondroitin pill for that aching knee, bring in a consultant to arrange our furniture according to the principles of Feng Shui, and don’t forget the Ginko (pun intended)!  Until it was banned by the government for making false claims, one well-known company sold shoe inserts with magnets to solve your foot pains.  Many Americans support these products, not based on any scientific information or real application of reason, but because they heard about it from a friend or it did wonders for Mom.  (A co-worker wanted me to try a particular food because it had antioxidants, but couldn’t tell me what an antioxidant does or why it’s good for you.)  Many supplements and homeopathic medicines have been subsequently proven to be ineffective, some should be taken only for special circumstances and some can be dangerous.

For those who swear by these products, much of the benefit can be explained by the Placebo effect.  So if we feel contemptuous when we read about people from Third World countries eating dung from sacred cows (which, by the way is organic, and all-natural), let’s look in the mirror, examine our own behaviors, prejudices and superstitions, unsupported by research or even by proper critical thinking.  Many of us take too much on faith or on the basis of anecdotal evidence.

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