Simon Kelner: Health is a safe bet when it comes to the news

Kelner's view
  • @Simon_Kelner

I may have shared with you previously the observation that just enough news happens every day to fill the pages of a newspaper. Over this summer (or what passes for it), the Jubilee, the Olympics and the Paralympics have occupied acres of newsprint, so it is reasonable to ask what would have filled the pages if those big events hadn't taken place. Were there hundreds of news stories out there that went unreported?

Perhaps only the really big stuff got a look-in, such as Geri Halliwell and Russell Brand becoming "a couple" or the sighting of a household cat on the loose in Essex. Or maybe news just stopped happening. Now it's September, and soon the world will be engaged in serious matters, but it is worth reflecting on some of the stories that you may have missed over the past weeks.

There is one genre of news report that, no matter what the season, can be guaranteed a place in the newspapers: the findings from a scientific or medical study that offers health advice. Every day, it seems, there is a new – often counter-intuitive, and sometimes contradictory – piece of lifestyle advocacy. I have collated the most significant developments in the world of health that you may have missed while you were watching the Queen, marvelling at Mo Farah, or listening to Stephen Hawking.

From bodies as august and diverse as the American Geriatrics Society and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and reported over the past few weeks in Britain's national newspapers, comes a bewildering array of recommendations. Such as drinking several cups of coffee a day could help to protect you against bowel cancer. Or that brushing your teeth, as well as freshening your breath after all that coffee, helps to ward off dementia. (Another study reported that junk food can increase the danger of dementia, so my advice is plenty of brushing and no burger!)

Also, losing your temper increases your chances of a stroke, while a simple one-hour operation halves the risk of a heart attack for those with high blood pressure. A herbal tea made from extracts of a plant known as virgin's mantle may hold the key to fighting breast cancer, and pregnant women are advised to eat nuts as they reduce the chances of children developing allergies.

I kid you not: every one of these assertions is the product of a bona fide academic study. So what are we supposed to make of all this? I gave up coffee about 20 years ago in order to sleep better, but should I now take it up again because insomnia is certainly preferable to bowel cancer? Or should I wait for the next study which tells me that a cup of coffee a day increases your brain power and makes you more attractive?

Of all this guidance, the suggestion that it might be beneficial not to lose your temper seems the most sensible and practical. But to do that, you may have to avoid thinking of all the money, effort and expertise that is expended to bring us the next piece of health advice we can ignore.