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A common sense approach to health

Let's be clear.

It is not being suggested that over-exposure to the sun no longer causes skin cancer. Expert advice to cover up, especially in unfamiliar conditions such as on holiday, to ensure children wear sunscreen, and to watch out for suspicious changes in moles and skin lesions, remains valid.

It is true that there has been an alarming rise in cases of skin cancer in the past decade, though this may be partly due to better detection rates. But the alarmist scare tactics may have been overstated.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh now say that staying out of the sun may have other risks. We already know Scots get too little vitamin D and that lack of sunshine is one of the causes. The latest findings, achieved by exposing volunteers to sun lamps, suggest a shortage of nitric oxide may also be a problem. Researchers claim it helps reduce blood pressure and cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Crucially, these positives may far outweigh the risk from skin cancer. But that is not an irrelevant risk. People who are prey to health scares at this point generally throw their hands up in a degree of perplexity or annoyance. What are you meant to do when a new scare is trumpeted every week, very often quickly followed by a contradictory message? Drinking coffee is reported to raise cancer risk one week then touted as a possible protective factor a month later. Red wine was supposed to convey health benefits, but can also cause major problems if taken to excess.

If we were more scientifically literate as a society we might be better equipped to respond to these stories. But there is another surprisingly simple answer. Use common sense. Somehow we seem to have evolved a society in which this is a commodity in short supply.

You can apply common sense to the sunshine – if you spend all your time inside in the dark, you look peely wally and don't feel good, so it's probably not the best for you. But neither is lying in the sun, under a layer of coconut oil, until everyone around you winces at the sight of your burning flesh.

It applies to food too. Red meat – despite good-for-you/bad-for-you contradictory guidance – is more or less fine in moderation, assuming you aren't opposed to it on ethical grounds.

Most of us would probably agree this applies to alcohol in pregnancy. While some studies have indicated pregnant women shouldn't consume at all, common sense suggests that when you are pregnant, an occasional drink, like sunshine, has social and psychological benefits that may outweigh the medical risk.

Why don't people deploy common sense more when making decisions about their health and other areas of their lives? We have learned to rely more and more on decisions made by others for us. Schools decide it is too risky for children to play outside when it is snowy. Councils tell parents how many children they can safely monitor in a swimming pool, and the supermarkets tell us when to throw food out.

Here's a secret: you can usually tell if food needs to be thrown out by how it looks and smells. Use-by dates on pickled things are often nonsense. There's a reason why characters in post-apocalyptic novels and films are delighted to find a cache of tinned goods, and care little for the dates on the labels. If people trusted their common sense, perhaps we wouldn't throw out so much of the food we buy.

Losing our ability to judge risk is a very modern problem. But there's an allied one. We are also losing our trust in official sources. One of the baffling tropes of recent weeks has been a collective imbecility in response to the news that drug-resistant strains of swine flu have been on the rise.

"Nothing happened when they told us there might be a pandemic in 2009," has been the common response.

Four years ago health organisations clearly said the threat might come to nothing, but that it was sensible to prepare – because the global consequences could be devastating. As a species, the scientific consensus was that we dodged a bullet.

If you've found a way to dodge a bullet once, my recommendation wouldn't be to say "well the next one will probably miss too", but to take the same precautions you took the first time. That's just common sense.

Contextual targeting label: 
Health

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