Medical research

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I think it’s time to give up reading articles about medical research. The news always seems bad – at least for me. For example, there was the connection between hearing loss and dementia that came to light in the past year or so. The researchers aren’t certain if the connection is causational (hearing loss causes dementia) or correlational (something else may be connecting the two, or the two just happen at the same time). The theories ranged from horrible (the hearing loss causes the dementia because of the extra work the brain has to do to hear) to not great (something else causes both), to OK (some people isolate themselves when they have a hearing loss and it’s the isolation, not the loss, that causes dementia).
The latest research that bothers me also deals with dementia. (Sense a theme? In case you haven’t guessed, there is some history of dementia in my family.) The connection this time is between sleep habits and dementia. The researchers found a connection between dementia and an increased need for sleep. If you’ve always slept nine hours or more, there isn’t a problem. However, for those who used to sleep fewer than nine hours, but now need nine or more, there is an increased risk.
As someone whose need for sleep seems to increase each year, this did not make me happy. What am I supposed to do, sleep less and walk around half exhausted? Hmm, maybe caffeine and sugar are the answer? They keep you awake – oh, right and do all kinds of other bad things to your body. I know, I know: the normal answer is eat right, get enough exercise and enough (but not too much) sleep. However, that doesn’t always help.
Of course, none of this research is the final answer because no one truly understands everything about how our bodies work. Some people can eat horribly, get no exercise and do everything else wrong, and never get sick. Others take good care of themselves, but end up suffering from a horrible illness. Our health is not only affected by our genes, but our environment. Studies that show a connection between our emotions and our health also reveal how little we know about what’s really happening. Even knowing everything won’t help, though, unless it’s possible to change our destiny. No one can predict the future: you could do everything right, be healthy and still get hit by a bus.
What’s fun is watching how research results have changed over time. The diet that doctors put my grandmother on for diverticulitis is now known as the diet that causes the disease. At one time, nutritionists said it didn’t matter what time of day you ate your calories, but they now say you should eat less in the evening if you want to lose weight. There are also interesting debates about particular foods and drinks. Fat is bad for you; no, wait, your body needs some fats, but not others. Candy has no nutritional value, but some chocolate is healthy. On the one hand, your alcohol intake needs to be limited; on the other, some alcoholic drinks have a positive effect, if taken in moderation. Next year, the ideas may change as we learn more. This reminds me of the film “Sleeper,” where the main character wakes up in the future to find that fat, cream and sugar are good for you. That’s something to dream about while we exercise and attempt to stick to our diet.