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Hooked on vitamins, ticks rising: a health news roundup

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Older Americans in particular tend to waste their money on vitamin supplements, despite the evidence that these products don’t protect against chronic diseases.

It’s been an up-and-down (weather-wise) month, but April has produced a steady shower of interesting health articles. Here are a few that you may have missed: 

“Older Americans Are Hooked On Vitamins Despite Scarce Evidence They Work,” Kaiser Health News 

The fact that vitamin supplements are overhyped and overused is not going to be news to any regular reader of Second Opinion. But this Kaiser Health News article, written by journalist Liz Szabo, offers a look at why older Americans in particular tend to waste their money on vitamin supplements, despite the evidence that these products don’t protect against chronic diseases (unless a person has a very specific vitamin-deficiency disease) and may actually, in some cases, do harm.

“This Strange Syndrome Causes People to Think Their Loved Ones Have Been Replaced by Identical Impostors,” Washington Post

Freelance journalist Meeri Kim describes a rare and fascinating neurological disorder known as Capgras syndrome, which “prompts a person to believe that loved ones have been replaced by identical duplicates of themselves.” The disorder’s cause is unknown, but it often develops in patients with Lewy body dementia. 

The effects of Capgras syndrome on the lives of patients and their families are heartbreaking. Writes Kim: “Marty Berman believed his wife had been replaced by an impostor. Others have dismissed loved ones as aliens, robots or clones. A number of cases have involved shocking acts of violence toward the delusional misidentified person. A 2014 report describes two cases of men with Capgras syndrome murdering their own mothers, while a 2015 report details how a Capgras patient with Parkinson’s disease became increasingly violent toward the different ‘versions’ of his wife. One earlier reported case involved a patient who decapitated his ‘robot’ father to find the batteries in his head.”

“Ticks Rising,” Aeon

In this deeply researched article, investigative reporter Mary Beth Pfieffer makes the compelling argument that Lyme disease is the first epidemic of climate change. “The story of the emergence of Lyme disease now, of its rise in dozens of countries around the world and of millions made sick, must be told through the lens of a modern society living in an altered environment,” she writes. “In the last quarter of the 20th century, a delicate array of natural forces indisputably tipped — were tipped, more accurately — to transform Lyme disease from an organism that lingered quietly in the environment for millennia to what it is today: the substance of painful stories shared between mothers; a quandary for doctors who lack good diagnostic tests and clear direction; the object of rancour over studies that discount enduring infection while acknowledging persisting pain.” 

“1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

While we’re on the topic of epidemics, the CDC has posted a compressed timeline of some of the events that took place a century ago, during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, which killed more American soldiers and sailors during World War I than enemy weapons. It’s a reminder of one of the most frightening events in U.S. medical history. Here’s the entry for 99 years ago this month (April 1919): “At Versailles Peace Conference, while negotiating the end of World War I with other world leaders, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson collapses. Some historians speculate he was weak from influenza, which was still rampant in Paris.”

“Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer?” Mother Jones

In the wake of her breast cancer diagnosis at age 47, Stephanie Mencimer, a staff writer at Mother Jones, decided to dig into the scientific research on risk factors for the disease, to see if such an investigation might offer an answer to the question so many cancer patients ask: “Why me?” She didn’t come up with a definitive answer, but she was stunned to discover her ignorance about one risk factor — alcohol consumption, even at low levels:

The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol, regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage Bordeaux, is carcinogenic. More than 100 studies over several decades have reaffirmed the link with consistent results. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels.

I’m a pretty voracious reader of health news, and all of this came as a shock. I’d been told red wine was supposed to defend against heart disease, not give you cancer. And working at Mother Jones, I thought I’d written or read articles on everything that could maybe possibly cause cancer: sugar, plastic, milk, pesticides, shampoo, the wrong sunscreen, tap water…. You name it, we’ve reported on the odds that it might give you cancer. As I schlepped back and forth to the hospital for surgery and radiation treatments, I started to wonder how I could know about the risk associated with all these other things but not alcohol. It turns out there was a good reason for my ignorance.

Mencimer goes on to explain how the alcohol industry has successfully planted the idea in the public’s mind that moderate drinking is part of a healthy lifestyle — despite all the evidence to the contrary. “Big Tobacco had set up research centers to dispute science tying smoking to lung cancer and funded research designed to show benefits from smoking, like stress reduction, to help fend off stricter regulation,” she writes. “The alcohol industry took a similar tack, aided by research it had been funding since the late 1960s.”

Pasta Is Good For You, Say Scientists Funded By Big Pasta,” BuzzFeed News

The alcohol industry isn’t the only one following Big Tobacco’s research-funding playbook. In an article for BuzzFeed News, reporter Stephanie M. Lee explains why we should be wary of the recent stream of studies claiming pasta is great for our health. Many of the authors of those studies, she writes, have “financial conflicts as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti, including ties to the world’s largest pasta company, the Barilla Group.”

Here’s Lee’s nut graf

At least 10 peer-reviewed studies about pasta published since 2008 were either funded directly by Barilla or, like the one published this month, were carried out by scientists who have had financial ties to the company, which reported sales of 3.4 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in 2016. For two years, Barilla has publicized some of these studies, plus others favorable to its product, on its website with taglines like “Eat Smart Be Smart … With Pasta” and “More Evidence Pasta Is Good For You.” And the company hired the large public relations firm Edelman to push the latest study’s findings to journalists.

None of these studies reported anything negative about eating pasta. And that’s not necessarily incorrect. Pasta, in moderation, is a staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet. But health experts say that consumers should be skeptical of the findings of any single study, and should know that the pasta industry is only funding science because it sees an upside.

“The purpose of these studies is not to do basic science about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet — those are very well-established,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University emerita professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health who tracks how the food industry funds science. “The purpose of this is to sell more pasta.”

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