Unlearning Supposedly Healthy Practices

Health information these days comes at us with the volume and velocity of a fire hose. Is anyone else struggling to stay afloat, or is it just me? Today let’s unlearn a few things and do a little myth-busting – kind of take out our brains and rinse them off with cool water.

Doctor Handphoto © 2009 Truthout.org | more info (via: Wylio)Retirement
Let’s start at the end with retirement – the golden years. Americans have eagerly awaited retirement since it was invented, which was only about 100 years ago. Retirement came about with the invention of the pension system. Previously people literally worked until they dropped. Ah, but to permanently abandon the grindstone and pursue a life of leisure filled with fly-fishing, golf and grandkid wrestling. What could be more healthful?

Retirement is actually one of the worst things you can do for your health. Everybody knows retirement is associated with a higher death rate, but we assume that is simply because old people retire. This has actually been studied, and if you match people for age, smoking and all important risk factors, the group that retires first, dies first. That is a curious phenomenon given retirement is a reprieve from the stress of work life.

Some of the reason for this is retired people’s activity level is often reduced – too much time watching TV or playing cards. Any job gets you out of bed and provides some exercise. The other factor is psychological. People need a reason to live. Believe it or not, endless rounds of golf or any other leisure activity gets tiresome. Work provides structure, social interaction and self-esteem that is not easily replaced after leaving the workplace. Retired people sometimes are haunted by feeling unimportant. They sometimes lose the “will to survive.” The body soon gets the message.

Avoiding Sun
We all know that sunshine is terrible for your skin. It will make you old and wrinkled, and it causes skin cancer. Surprisingly enough, this also not the whole story. Scientists study death rates all around the country looking for trends. The so-called Sunbelt consistently has lower death rates than our more cloudy neighbors. Serious diseases like a number of cancers (colon cancer is one of them) are less prevalent in the Sunbelt. It turns out sunshine on your skin produces Vitamin D, which is good for more than simply preventing rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Vitamin D is a potent antioxidant. The elevated levels of Vitamin D after regular sun exposure offers you some protection against cancer and premature death. It might very well be a choice between looking old and getting old. Just to be safe, try 15 minutes of sun a day without sunblock.

Sanitizing
Dirt can’t be good. My mother kept the house spic and span. Cleanliness was not just desirable, it was elevated to the moral plane of godliness. All that sanitization, however, can wreak havoc with an immature immune system. Kids in very clean houses have elevated rates of asthma and autoimmune disease. These are diseases that can last a lifetime. One of the initial scientific findings that suggested dirt is good studied houses with dogs. Houses with two dogs have drastically reduced asthma rates. If you ever had a dog or two, you know it’s impossible to keep the house antiseptically clean. For those with no knowledge of the dog experience – dogs like to roll around in dirt, come in the house and joyously shake, raising a huge dust cloud. Makes you want to go right out and buy one, doesn’t it?

Single Life
Marriage is talked about a lot in both glowing and derogatory terms, but it has a surprisingly big impact on your health. This is a total surprise to every medical student who learns it. Mortality from almost every cause is significantly reduced by marriage. The truly amazing thing is no one mechanism is able to account for this. Married people have less heart disease and cancer, possibly because they eat better. But they also have lower rates of death from shark bites, gun shot wounds or almost any other cause you can think of. This has remained stubbornly unexplained after literally decades of research, and still today baffles young (single) medical students.

Reading About Health
Finally, obsessing about your health might not be a healthful activity, even though it seems like it should be. Many of us spend a lot more time researching, reading and discussing health than actually doing something healthy. Unlike your diet, where it matters very much what you consume, your reading choices don’t have nearly as much impact on your health. This might have considerable individual variability. The $10 million question is: does health obsession lead to more healthful activities? After 30 years of medicine, I remain unconvinced. Usually people just decide. Tomorrow is your next chance.

Take care,

Dr. B

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