Modern science offers us a wide range of new medicines, procedures and supplements designed to help us stay healthy, along with constantly changing recommendations about what we should eat and how we should avoid pathogens. How can we sort through the flood of information and make healthy choices?
Remedies or Risks?
Usually the benefits of new supplements and medicines are well-documented early on. Their risks may not become apparent for months, years or even decades.
Omega-3 oils were highly recommended by certain studies to reduce the risk of conditions including depression, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, strokes and heart disease. Then newer studies questioned the effectiveness of omega-3s in preventing heart disease and strokes. Then some studies seemed to show that omega-3s could increase the risk of prostate cancer. Even medical experts seem uncertain about how to understand the research.
Conflicting claims about actual medications can be even harder to evaluate. There’s controversy now about whether certain drugs designed to help people suffering from depression and anxiety may actually increase patients’ risk of suicide. Sorting through the studies could be stressful and bewildering even to someone with a healthy mind.
It can be hard to know when precautionary measures protect us and when they actually compromise our health.
Often apparently healthy people are urged to come in for regular preventive screenings for various cancers and other diseases. This can help detect illnesses while they are still relatively easy to treat. It can also create problems. Sometimes there are inherent risks in the screening process itself. There is also the risk of ‘false positives’: the test suggests the presence of a disease that is not there, and the patient worries needlessly and then undergoes a biopsy or other procedure that carries its own risks.
We’re encouraged to wash frequently with antibacterial products to avoid sickness. This does reduce our exposure to certain germs. It can also destroy healthy bacteria on our skin, leaving us more vulnerable to infections, and encourage resistant strains of bacteria to develop, making it harder for doctors to effectively treat patients with serious bacterial infections. Some argue that carefully avoiding contact with germs can weaken our immune systems, leaving us less resilient when we actually become sick.
The Big Picture
Sometimes we let the controversies about new products and procedures distract us from the basic things that we already. Many modern health issues are caused or exacerbated by our failure to attend to these basics. We need to eat reasonable amounts of food and choose food that is as whole and fresh as possible. We need to exercise regularly. We need to get enough sleep. We also need to be attentive to public health, doing what we can to protect our neighbors and ourselves from contaminated air, water and food, and also from excessive noise and light. If we do these things we’ll be in better shape to face whatever health challenges come to us.
For the rest, we might as well use common sense and moderation, do the best we can, and then stop worrying. We’re all going to die of something eventually. We might as well worry less and enjoy more while we’re here.