They say nothing in this world is certain except for death and taxes. I would add another item to that short list: change. You can always count on things changing. It’s part of life’s perpetual motion. I won’t be writing about the big changes in our lives like technology, politics or climate change. I want to remind you about some of the smaller and more ironic changes that are interesting and funny when we look back at them today.
Let’s start with science. We’ve all heard about the horrors medical science has inflicted throughout the ages when things like leeches were used to drain blood and lobotomies to cure mental illness. In the late 1800s cocaine was a primary ingredient in Coca-Cola. At the previous turn of the century (I still can’t get used to the idea that the “turn of the century” now refers to 18 years ago), heroin was prescribed as a cough suppressant. In the 1940s and ’50s, cigarettes were sold as being good for you with ads like, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarettes” and “No curative power is claimed for Philip Morris … but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Were they completely ignorant or did they know they were blowing smoke up our asses? Hey, maybe that’s where that expression came from.
We look back at those primitive perceptions through a filter of time and excuse them because they were so long ago. But the convictions of medical science have continued to change with unnerving regularity just within my lifetime.
Remember when being out in the sun was thought to be good for you? When I was a kid, nobody warned us about the dangers of skin cancer. Our parents encouraged us to play in the sun all day without any kind of sunscreen. If any suntan lotion was used it was usually to get a deeper, darker tan. Some people would rub baby oil or Crisco oil all over their bodies, depending on whether they wanted just a regular tan or extra-crispy. Sometimes, direct sunlight wasn’t even good enough. People would often lay outside holding aluminum reflectors under their chins that were designed to intensify the effects of the sun on their poor unsuspecting faces. The SPF rating wasn’t even implemented until 1974 and the numbers were only in the single digits back then. Today, you can find SPF’s that go all the way up to 100. Now when we go to the dermatologist we are told the skin damage we did decades ago will continue to reveal itself for the rest of our lives and could even be fatal. When you think about it, it’s a miracle my entire generation hasn’t been wiped out by a massive melanoma epidemic. Talk about getting burned.
For generations, including part of my own, the human appendix was believed to have no purpose. If doctors were performing a surgery that happened to be near the appendix, they would typically remove it simply because it might burst someday and they figured they might as well take it out while they were in the neighborhood. And probably because they could bill extra for it, too. Now we know that it is a functioning part of our immune system. Or at least we think it is.
When I was growing up, white bread was a diet staple in practically every home. The most popular brand was Wonder Bread, which promised to build “strong bodies in twelve ways.” (I couldn’t name even one of those ways but I believed it.) That’s right, they were allowed to sell the least nutritional bread by telling us it was the most nutritional bread. Not to mention the fact that, when compared to the wide variety of breads available today, it was the most boring bread of all time. Next to matzah.
Old Wonder Bread commercial:
They told us red meat was good for us and we were encouraged to eat as much of it as we could get our carnivorous little hands on. Nobody worried about their cholesterol levels or eating too many fatty foods in the ’60s. Vegetarianism was for hippies. Then, for a while, red meat was out of vogue. So much so that the pork industry advertised its product as “the other white meat.” Which I always found a little disturbing because I wasn’t sure if they were referring to chicken, turkey or Caucasians. Now pork is classified as a red meat. And in case you haven’t been keeping up, a moderate diet of red meat is currently recommended. Emphasis on the word “currently.”
A few years ago, my doctor gave me a list of good and bad foods for my slightly elevated cholesterol level. For the life of me, I couldn’t make sense out of it. It was counterintuitive and seemed to contradict itself. That was only about seven years ago and that list has already become obsolete due to the new science, which now says that diet doesn’t affect cholesterol levels, after all. I don’t know what effect any of this has had on my body, but I know it makes my head hurt.
And the list goes on. Eggs used to be good for you, then they were bad for you, now they’re good for you again. (Except for sunny side up, those were always a little gross.) Same thing with wine. First it was bad, then it was good, now it’s good and bad. (Of course those researchers were probably so drunk it’s no wonder they can’t make up their minds.) Most experts now agree that diet soda is worse for you than regular soda. (So if you drink diet soda you’re basically saying, I want to lose weight — I just want to do it in a really unhealthy way.) This kind of information seems to change practically daily. How are we supposed to keep up and why should we believe any of it? This is not fashion where the styles are expected to change. These are not opinions where people get to have different ones. These are supposed to be scientifically proven facts. Why can’t they just make up their minds already???
It makes me wonder about all the modern medical science we live by now. How much of it will be obsolete and proven wrong over the next few years? How much of what we are troubling ourselves to do today, because we’re told it’s good for us, will turn out to be bad for us? While this may be disconcerting to some, it makes me feel a little better about the fact that I did not bother to eat right, exercise regularly or follow most of my doctor’s orders before I reached my fifties.
My take-away from all this: Don’t make health decisions based on studies or claims. Even the ones that are more right than wrong are based on statistical averages. They don’t apply to everyone. No two people’s bodies are the same, just like no two people’s fingerprints are the same. (Although, I often wonder about this claim. Unless they have fingerprinted every single person who ever lived, how can they really know that for sure?) The best thing you can do is consult your own doctor and get to know your own body. See what works for you and use some common sense — unless you’re a complete idiot, in which case you should probably do what everybody else tells you all the time.
Case in point: Now they’re telling us to change the way we sneeze. They used to say cover your mouth and nose with your hands. Now we’re supposed to sneeze into the inside of our elbows. Yuck! I know there’s less chance of spreading germs, but there’s got to be a better way. Did you ever try to wipe a big wad of sneeze excrement off your sleeve? It’s disgusting. You can wipe your hands off with a tissue or wash them with soap and water but if you want to get that gunk off your jacket or shirt, you pretty much have to send it to the cleaners. My suspicion is that whatever health organization came up with that bright idea is probably in the pocket of Big Dry-Cleaning. And while I’m not sure about this, I have a theory that this may be how the dance move known as “dabbing” got started.
As David Bowie sang, “Turn and face the strange”. For more Ch-ch-ch-changes, see Part 2.