Navigating the vast wealth of health advice

00:29, Nov 15 2011

Maintaining our health can be a strange and confusing phenomenon.

I mean no slight to health researchers, but for the ordinary person maintaining this thing we call "health", it must seem like a journey in contradiction.

We are advised to get exercise to maintain health, but there are plenty of us who are paying the price for running marathons or jogging to keep fit, now with knee and hip aches and pains.

We are told alcohol is bad for us, but if we must drink at all, those earnest scientists at Harvard University have found that a daily red wine provides antioxidants, which help to reduce coronary disease.

We are constantly advised to eat low fat, and yet recently, we have been advised that a major study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no significant evidence concluding that dietary saturated fat was associated with coronary heart disease.

Coffee is the most common stimulant used daily by many of us to raise our alertness in the morning, and yet this is apparently linked to increased risk of heart disease.


Sunshine is yet another conundrum for us.

We are told it is good for making vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis and depression, but it is also bad for us, because it can cause melanoma and prematurely ages our skin.

If we are to listen to the American Medical Association, the amount of medical information now doubles every two years and the pace of scientific and biotechnology developments are accelerating, making the shelf life of current knowledge relatively short.

Reflecting back on our recent history of some common illnesses demonstrates the amount of change we have experienced.

Treatment for troublesome gallbladders has significantly changed with laparoscopic surgical techniques, which began in 1987.

How we treat chronic wounds has changed remarkably, with new technologies providing advanced wound-care products often giving us less invasive treatments.

Laser treatments for eyes evolved into mainstream use in the 1980s, transforming the prolonged operative and recovery periods for patients.

The early 1980s saw the development of the cochlear implant, a biotechnological innovation to stimulate hearing and improve people's quality of life.

A mega-star in terms of contribution to life and living must be interventional cardiology and the use of stents to improve survival from heart attack. The technique has only been available since the mid 1980s and has saved many lives.

Added to all of these advances, our access to electronic health information has become more and more instant.

Health knowledge is not only accessible publicly, but it is able to be sourced from global organisations, some of which are credible and some not so credible.

Increasingly we interface with the internet to get the lowdown on health facts related to real or perceived conditions varying from the causes of athlete's foot to a greater understanding of normal neural tube growth in pregnancy.

We are bombarded with health-related information from television, from our children at school and from anyone who has an opinion on life and living, it seems.

Indeed, some individuals feel so strongly about health evidence that they become zealots, and a particular case in point is that of the lunchbox police.

My daughter has experienced such a reprimand for being so bold as to include some "forbidden" presumably fat and sugar-laden chocolate cookies and crisps in my granddaughter's lunchbox.

The question is, when did we all become a monitor of others to ensure their health? At the end of the day, one immutable fact remains, and that is that each of us is responsible for our own health and wellness.

We all get to make the choices, good and bad, on a daily basis related to our health or illness potential, and that can be extremely difficult in the face of confusing messages about what is right or wrong.

Each of us has a unique health profile and all the advice, confusing as it is, is best distilled against that unique profile.

This is best achieved with our primary health professional, working with other health professionals to keep their knowledge up to date.

New technologies for sharing medical knowledge enable doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other health professionals to achieve the best care for us all and ensure that it is delivered sooner and more conveniently.

Right, I'm off for some chocolate and red wine.

The Nelson Mail publishes a fortnightly article written by clinical staff at Nelson Marlborough District Health Board. Robyn Henderson is the director of nursing and midwifery at the health board.