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Health fads come, go, but alcohol still flows

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 19, 2003

One thing is for certain, whenever you read something exciting in the popular medical press, all you have to do is wait a few days, or hours, for things to change.

Cancer cures have been just around the corner for decades. Coffee goes from being villain to hero at least twice a year, and a few years back network talking heads were all in a dither about telemeres and telemerase, the latter being a substance that keeps the former from deteriorating during cellular reproduction and which, we were breathlessly told, could be the key to greatly expanded longevity.

People, last time I checked, were still dying and still getting cancer, and my doctor still tells me that my usual eight-to-10 cups of coffee per day might have something to do with my occasional inability to blink.

Let's not even talk about diets.

We've been told to eat everything from heavy-fat to no-fat to rice-only to fruit-only diets.

The only one I think works with any permanent efficacy is the one where you take massive doses of tranquilizers all day. It doesn't affect your appetite, but most of your food falls on the floor.

The latest offering on the yes-it-is-no-it-isn't health altar is another perennial favorite, alcohol.

That one has been going on since or before St. Paul wrote, "Do not still drink water but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and frequent infirmities."

Ever since then we are frequently being told that the French or the Italians or some other wine-drinking group has fewer heart attacks, less cancer or more sex than those who don't drink.

On the other hand there is always some group or another telling us that one sip of beer is the gateway to winding up in the gutter drinking away the rent money and singing Melancholy Baby.

Last week we were told by the Associated Press that new research funded by the National Institutes of Health shows that "as little as one-half drink a day," no matter what your alcoholic beverage of choice, can reduce the risk of heart attacks.

Apparently alcohol, in small doses, increases the amount of good cholesterol and reduces blood clotting. Good if you have cloggable arteries, bad if you just got shot or stabbed -- an occasion that is also sometimes linked to alcohol consumption.

At first I was really pleased to hear the news. At half a drink per day, and given the fact that I used to drink a lot, I figured I was caught up, healthwise, until around the year 2250 or so.

But as usual, there is a hook.

The study also notes that benefits apply only to moderate drinkers.

Heavy drinkers still face risks of alcoholism, drunken driving and liver and brain damage, and women who have two or more drinks per day are 41 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not drink.

"I don't think any doctor would advise a patient to start drinking to prevent heart disease," said Dr. Gary Francis, director of the coronary intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic, according to the Associated Press story.

As it turns out, the study was done only on men, and in fact, only on male health-care professionals who also tend to take better care of themselves than the general population.

And, yes, alcohol has also been touted as a snakebite remedy. Treatment for snakebite has changed from the days when they told us to cut over the fang marks and suck the poison out. Today a much kinder and gentler regimen recommends immediate cold packs and transportation to a hospital, if you are lucky enough to have been bitten near one.

Butter for burns is out; ice water is in. Aspirin to prevent heart attacks was still in the last time I checked, but I am now unsure how many drinks to wash it down with.

I was about to say that the only thing the health gurus seem to agree on is that exercise is good and smoking is bad, although I've never trusted the pro-exercise lobby since Jim Fixx, the guy who almost single-handedly kicked off the running craze of the late 1970s and early 1980s, dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging.

Me? I'm heading for the bar next door, and I'm getting out quick while alcohol is still in and green tea with ginseng is on the back burner.

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