Good health? Common sense, not conspiracy

Circulating on Facebook are variations on the “Amish Cancer Secret”, which has gone from a straightforward piece of scientific research to a series of wilder claims produced by quacks.

The variations tell you all you need to know about human nature.

“How to cure any cancer the Amish way” was one we saw this week, which claims the Amish have a secret formula for curing cancer (or something, we didn’t read it, life’s too short to waste on idiots).

If not in the hands of quacks, the research ends up being promoted by New Agers, who believe that the Amish’s miracle cancer thing is down to them avoiding genetically modified crops (untrue) or vaccinations (true but they get measles — in a 2014 outbreak in the US, most of the 300 measles cases reported were among the unvaccinated, 138 in unvaccinated Amish) and that the Amish have mysteriously secrets to health (untrue). Also that “they” — the pharmaceutical giants — are keeping these secrets from us (untrue).

We saw another post this week that claimed the Amish are “much healthier” than the rest of us, and have “virtually no” cancer, or indeed any other diseases and that their lifestyle — riding horses, putting up houses in a day, hanging around with Harrison Ford, growing beards — offered a miracle cure that western medicine has forgotten.

It all shows how gullible people can be, not only in believing that a secret cure for cancer exists but also that there’s a conspiracy to hide it.

The original research was carried out by geneticist Dr Judith Westman, who figured that the Amish would have higher rates of cancer because of inter-breeding.

Instead she found out the Amish had lower cancer rates than the general US population; it was not “virtually no” but the rate was 40% lower than the general population in Ohio.

Tobacco-related cancer was 63% lower than the rest of the population in the Amish, who don’t smoke. She also found few occurrences of cervical cancer and a lower than average rate of skin cancer.

The reason offered is common sense: they live a clean lifestyle and discourage tobacco and alcohol. They eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables, and are largely monogamous.

They lead active and hard-working lives with plenty of fresh air, and while outdoors wear sensible hats and shirts.

It’s hardly whacky, but human gullibility means that some people pedal it as more than it really is.

The flipside is that while believing any old hooey that conspiracy theorists and quacks put on the internet, people don’t take common sense advice that could help them in the same way as the Amish help themselves.

The best example was the recent NHS guidelines on alcohol, ie drink less as per the Amish “miracle cure”.

Did people say: “Good idea, that’s one reason the Amish have less cancer”. No.

“Health chief attacked over ‘nanny state’ alcohol guide that says a single glass of wine a day raises cancer risk,” said the Daily Mail, summing up most of the other coverage quite well.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage called for a mass protest against the “puritanical” consumption guidelines, and urged everyone to go for a protest pint at lunchtime.

Smoking hardly needs to be mentioned. It kills half of all users. It’s bad.

But again, people willing to lap up conspiracy theories about cancer secrets are equally unhappy when being given sensible health advice.

“If we let the Nanny State hound parents who smoke in cars, I dread to think who it’ll pick on next,” wrote columnist Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. The headline implied to the casual reader that not only should smoking be allowed but that forcing children to breath in that healthy tar was also acceptable. (He was making the point that banning things was wrong, which is fair enough, and that smoking in cars was unbelievably bad though his end point — that all this would end in a total ban on smoking — was deliberately provocative and he did write the piece to allow the misleading headline).

The campaign to get people to eat healthily meets less opposition — apart from food manufacturers — though most people ignore it, or find it hard to understand. But it’s not difficult: don’t eat rubbish and if in doubt read the label.

These thoughts were sparked not by the Amish nonsense on social media but by a story that the NFU has set out 34 recommendations for increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

With an annual cost of obesity to the NHS of £5.1bn per year, the NFU is calling on Government, retailers, processors and the food service industry to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables from its current level of three a day to the recommended five a day.

It’s not rocket science. There’s no conspiracy. Eat less fat and sugar, drink less, don’t smoke, exercise and the Amish “secret” is yours

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