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Lucy Mangan: Stop with the health-scare stories already

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"Hello! Happy new year! How’ve you been? I’m almost slightly glad to be back at work. All that freeform jollity slightly unnerves me.

Still, the holidays do free up a certain amount of mental space and energy – assuming you don’t spend ALL your time eggnogged into oblivion – for reflections and resolutions. Here’s mine: I’m going to stop panicking over health stories.

For one thing, there are simply too many and the repeated stresses they bring must be killing me. Which could make another health article in itself of course: ‘Reading these stories causes heart disease! So stop! Except for this one!

And for another, they can’t all be true. Sometimes, of course, the research or report on which the headline and article are based is obviously solid, sensible stuff from a solid, sensible source – the World Health Organisation, the BMJ [British Medical Journal], The Overarching International Institute of Proper Science & That – and clearly worth noting.

And then there’s the other stuff – studies carried out on three goldfish by the Homeopathic School of Disease Diviners from the Loughborough Non-University of Non-Biological Sciences etc – that you can equally clearly discount.

But between these two extremes lies a large grey area that – if you don’t have the training in deciphering statistics or a working knowledge of how to disaggregate peer-reviewed papers from non-peer reviewed papers and the results therein – means you can only go by instinct, common sense and how recently you were scared by a revelation that directly contradicted the current one. Red wine’s good! Red wine’s bad! Running protects against everything! Running pulverises joints! Pregnancy prevents cancer of the lady parts! Pregnancy sucks the very marrow from your bones and leaves you in a dusty heap of osteoporosis and regret!

I frequently feel like I am in a hall of mirrors – a subclinical funhouse where everything is distorted, I can’t tell what’s real or not and I cannot escape (if you can, by the way, kudos, and how about we meet up for a drink sometime? Ideally in a week in which red wine is good for us).

There is so much of this stuff around, and most of it is aimed at women.

Do the people who print these pieces genuinely think we are physically weaker than men? Are they still essentially entranced by some notion of us laydeez as fragile collections of strange, unknowable parts – Wombs! Ovaries! Boobies! – and prone to all sorts of maladies that can strike us down at any time, and that they are doing their best to forewarn and arm us against them?

Or do they simply think we are more fearful and/or more gullible and prey on our anxieties in order to shift papers, garner clicks and drive traffic? And are we indeed more fearful and more gullible? I suspect we might be – if only because we grow up surrounded by stories that suggest, and a social environment that proves, we are more vulnerable and that everyone has an interest in and some kind of collective right to access, monitor and use our bodies for their own ends. Why should germs or mutant cells be any different?

I think men find it easier to shrug off male health scare stories not just because there are fewer of them but because they generally think of their bodies as inviolable. Eating and drinking what they like, having as much sex or taking as little exercise as they want is a right, not an indulgence (as we too often think of it) or a sign of moral weakness (as we are too often taught to think of it) and if this leads to problems later in life then so be it. Just call a doctor in to take care of it, as you would a plumber or electrician if something went wrong in the house.

But women are required to maintain themselves more carefully, and their lifestyle decisions are frequently evaluated by harsher and less disinterested criteria.

But we only have so much worry in us and we mustn’t let it get frittered away on nonsense. I resolve to concentrate more fully on the basics – smear tests, breast checks, eating my five a-day and so on – instead of corroding my mental and physical health by fretting over scare stories. Here’s to a happy, healthy new year.”

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