The Evolution of Health Advice Over the Years

Jane Brody, who has written the Personal Health column in the New York Times since 1976, is retiring. I’ve always thought it seemed like one of the ultimate jobs in journalism. Jane, who is in her 80s, has been involved with reporting on health for over 58 years.

For her last column this week, she wanted to highlight the breathtaking evolution in information and advice about several major health topics that has occurred since she joined The Times as a health and science writer in 1965.

She notes that she based the advice in her columns on the best available evidence at the time she wrote them. But the very nature of the scientific process dictates that medicine evolves, and will continue to do so. As occurred with the coronavirus, this evolution will necessarily spawn new health recommendations. Only one thing remains static and continues to jeopardize the health of all who fall for it: quackery.

I agree that the coronavirus has highlighted the problem with health recommendations.

Many people got upset when the recommendations from the CDC would change with respect to the best way to manage COVID. People saw such changes as incompetence or a conspiracy theory. But as Brody points out, this is all part of the scientific process. As you learn more about an issue,  it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the recommendations could change.

So let’s look at some of the biggest changes, according to Brody, in health care recommendations over the years.

  • Jane was a big supporter of the 1977 Dietary Goals issued by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition that urged Americans to eat less high-fat meat, butter, eggs, and refined sugar and eat more fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. More recent studies have found the trans fats in these hydrogenated vegetable products were even more damaging to arteries than animal fats. Dietary recommendations evolved to feature olive oil, a mainstay of a Mediterranean style of eating, and other unsaturated fats like canola, grapeseed, and nut oils.
  • Jane notes that she is very proud of the fact-based campaign I waged in The Times to curb Americans’ most dangerous yet readily avoidable habit – smoking. Smoking reached a peak of 42 percent in 1964 to 14 percent in 2019. That is a major success. However, there has been a recent resurgence in the number of younger people smoking.
  • There have been dramatic improvements in surgical procedures over the decades as well.
    • radical mastectomy was the gold standard for treating breast cancer, and Brody recalls saying that would be her choice if she got this disease. Today, such an approach has almost entirely been replaced by early detection and minimal surgery, often followed by radiation and chemotherapy,
    • surgery to remove cataracts is now an outpatient procedure
    • the ability to transplant organs between genetically different people, or even from animals to humans.
    • Pediatric surgeons now operate to correct or minimize major potentially fatal defects, including spina bifida and obstructed airways, while babies are still in the womb
    • bariatric surgeons can now safely facilitate substantial weight loss in teenagers and adults with health-threatening obesity when dietary changes don’t suffice.
  • understanding of human sexuality has undergone a major shift toward medical and cultural acceptance of lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer people. In 1971 Brody wrote a story that suggested that psychotherapy could help homosexuals become heterosexual, an idea that she along with health professionals, now scorn as abusive.
  • Attitudes toward mental health have changed over the years. There are now many effective medications and other treatments for common conditions including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis. The recognition of autism as a spectrum disorder is fostering a greater understanding of children and adults with this condition.

It’s encouraging to see the progress in health that has been made over the past 50 years or so, and it must have been wonderful for Jane to have played a key role in such progress.

Maybe someday there will be a cure to help people who continually check their blogging stats, find accounting fascinating, and fill the world with blather on a daily basis…

*image from The New York Times

34 thoughts on “The Evolution of Health Advice Over the Years

  1. The frustrating part is how long it takes for some things to happen, but education doesn’t happen overnight. Hopefully, we’re all open-minded enough to change our opinion based on new information.

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  2. Medicine is a science and pursued as such, where new information and understanding of disease and illness are constantly changing. I personally like when recommendations change because to me it means where have learned more about the disease. Oh, the things she has seen in her life. What an amazing story to share. Great post, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that’s how I felt about COVID. It didn’t bother me that recommendations would change, because as younote, that means they were learning new things. Plus, it also meant they weren’t stuck in their ways and not wiling to admit that their old recommendations may no longer be appropriate…

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  3. This is why I take all medical recommendations that I read in the news, with a grain of salt. As well as with a few jelly beans and marshmallows. Not to mention ice cream, pie, cake, and Cool Whip.

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  4. What an interesting career she had which spanned over many years and included a pandemic! I agree, I remember seeing the rage from ppl when the guidelines kept changing but what I kept thinking was, this virus has never existed in this capacity before… No one knows fully what it is capable of and we are all just learning as we go… We can only do our best with the knowledge we currently have…

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  5. Jane has lived through, and been a part of, some very important changes. If only we could find a cure for the innate stupidity of those who disagree with the science with absolutely no qualifications to do so.

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  6. Where would we be if science didn’t evolve? And not just health science. Do these conspiracy theorists not realize that the wheel was also a scientific-based invention? I respect the fact that someone in the position of Jane Brody is able to be flexible with her opinions as things evolved. A good example for others to follow.

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  7. Congratulations to Jane for staying on top of the health issues over the years and writing accordingly. She has had a wonderful career. I love your ending to the post (as always), but cannot promise finding accounting fascinating. 🙂

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  8. When I was younger and wanted to go into journalism – this is what I had in mind – having my own column/section in a paper people would look forward to on a regular basis. I expected to connect with some people and have the readers become a family of sorts. That’s how it used to be. Journalism, like everything else, has evolved. I feel like I’ve achieved a sort of a ‘family’ with my readers here on the blog. On the other hand, I don’t really see prolific writers in magazines/papers anymore. It’s all about TikTok/Instagram/etc influencers.

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