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