Things are worse than you ever imagined. A year-end roundup for paranoids

By Robert Sarner, Quest magazine, Dec. 1981

For the practicing paranoid, these are momentous times. For the self-respecting pessimist, things couldn't be better. But for most of us, the world has seen brighter days. Lately, everywhere you turn, there's another crisis, another disaster, another danger, another conflict. It all adds up to more tension, more anxiety, more melancholy. Good news seems forever out of season.

Of course, there remains a handful of noble souls, beset by incurable optimism, who persist in calling the half-empty bottle half full. Things, they argue, could be worse. In truth, things are not as bad as they seem. They're worse. Much worse. There's plenty more to worry about if you only knew. We know.

We speak here not of acid rain, the prospect of WWIII, raging inflation, western provinces threatening to secede from Canada, the eternal plight of Can-Lit, nuclear reactors gone amok and other such inconveniences. They're nothing next to the real perils of everyday existence: those banal, seemingly benign trappings of modern man designed to make life more carefree. Beware.

The past 12 months have been a banner year for scientists, psychologists, researchers and other assorted killjoys who make it their business to complicate our lives. These learned ladies and gentlemen have done a splendid job of discovering bold new attacks on the battered human species. Most of their findings - buried in the far reaches of newspapers and professional journals - go unnoticed. But not to worry. We've been patrolling the pages all year long on your behalf, forever on the lookout for new hazards.

It pains us to impose on you such a heavy dose of sobriety at this time of year, but largesse oblige. After all, time may be running out. Herewith a mere sampling of your real enemies, unmasked at last. Read on - and abandon all hope.

Watch your weight, not your plate

SAN FRANCISCO - Watching food being prepared or displayed may be detrimental for those watching their weight. That's the conclusion of Yale psychologist Judith Rodin, who presented her findings to the annual meeting of the Association for Advancement in Behavior Therapy. In essence, some people may gain weight at the sight of food.

Earlier research has shown that external stimuli, such as the sight of tasty food, increase the amount of insulin in the bloodstream. Insulin speeds the conversion of nutrients into fat. To balance this oversecretion of insulin, some people also tend to consume more calories, which are likely to be stored as fat. In her study, Rodin proved that obese and potentially obese people who respond strongly to the sight and smell of food have a greater tendency to secrete more insulin.

Bite of the times

PORTLAND - The unconscious habit of bruxism - the grinding, gritting or clenching of teeth - may leave you highly conscious of its ill effects. That's the word from Dr. William Howard of the University of Oregon's School of Dentistry, who says that almost everybody is a victim of bruxism.

"Our muscles tighten as we become tense and this includes our chewing muscles which bring our teeth together," explains Howard. "Then we start to brace on our teeth or rub them or clench them. This can be the start of some very serious problems." By literally grinding away parts of teeth, he says bruxism can cause malocclusion - imperfect alignment of the teeth when the jaw is closed - which in turn can contribute to worse problems, such as breaking and loosening of teeth, pain in the jawbone, sensitivity to brushing in the gum area, muscle spasms by the ear and along the side of the head, and headaches and sore muscles in the neck and upper back.

Hidden horror of halitosis

VANCOUVER - Bad breath is more than just ill wind blown on your social life. Your teeth may suffer as well, maintains a University of British Columbia dental researcher, who has found that one of the chemicals responsible for foul breath odors also attacks gum tissue. Bad breath, says Joe Tonzetich, an oral biologist, may be the trigger for gum disease, the most important cause of loss of teeth in adults.

Tonzetich first discovered a technique for measuring the minute traces of sulphur-based chemicals responsible for the foul odor. He has now demonstrated that one of the breath compounds, hydrogen sulphide, combines with the tough connective tissue that holds teeth in place and breaks down the tissue's internal structure.

Embrace of salvation

TORONTO - A life without hugs may be a walk on the wild side. According to Dr. Virginia Satir, therapist and social worker, if the world's getting you down, you best try a little hug. That's the prescription she made to more than 4,000 mental health professionals attending the 57th annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association held in Toronto. The pioneer in family and human relations said people need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance and 12 for growth.

"Our pores are places for messages of love," explains Satir. "Being able to have physical contact is very important. Life can be glorious if people reach out and touch each other. Unfortunately, most touching and hugging in North America is done on the football field."

Agents-provocateurs disguised as kids

WASHINGTON - Your children are no friends of your marriage. Researchers at the American National Alliance for Operational Parenthood have found that childless couples have closer relationships than those with children. After examining several related studies, the NAOP concluded that for those couples who do have children, marital satisfaction is at its peak before the children are born or after they have grown up and left home.

Evil harvest

NEW YORK - Life on the farm may be healthier than city living in many respects, but researchers at the University of Iowa have found that the state's farmers run much higher risks than urban dwellers of developing and dying from six types of cancer. Analyzing the death certificates of more than 20,000 white male Iowans, Dr. Leon Burmeister and his colleagues found that prostate, stomach, lymph gland and lip cancer, leukemia and multiple myeloma (a form of bone marrow cancer) occurred up to three times more frequently among farmers. Burmeister, a professor of preventive medicine and environmental health, cannot explain the high incidences among farmers, but concedes they may be somehow related to farming demands and practices.

Taking your breath away

NEW YORK - The air you breathe in your home and office may be nothing but ill wind in disguise. In fact, it may be more hazardous to your health than the outdoor air in the most polluted of cities. So says The New York Times, based on a study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indoor air pollution has been linked to a wide variety of adverse health effects, including - best hold your breath - headaches, respiratory problems, frequent colds and sore throats, chronic cough, skin rashes, eye irritation, lethargy, dizziness and memory lapses. Long-term effects may include an increased risk of cancer.

A study by the EPA showed that the average person spends about 90 percent of his or her time indoors. Virtually every household and office building is a potential source of excessive amounts of one or another toxic pollutant - nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, asbestos, to say nothing of the chemicals in hair sprays, deodorants, oven cleaners, paints, pesticides, laundry aids, floor and furniture polishes, glue and, ironically, air fresheners. The danger is most acute during winter when windows and doors are kept tightly shut and homes, schools and office buildings are made as airtight as possible to conserve energy.

Pet perks

LONDON - Not having and caring for a pet may make you less likely to survive a heart attach than those who do own animals. That's the word from Dr. Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania, who spoke to a British conference of veterinarians and psychologists. Dr. Katcher studied 92 heart attack and angina patients and the social factor most associated with survival was pet ownership. He said that 94 percent of pet owners were still alive a year later but only 71 percent of those without an animal survived. Looking after any pet, including tropical fish or a bird, he explained, could help a patient survive a heart attack because the animal gave the person a focus of attention and helped reduce anxiety.

Setting a poor example

BOSTON - Capital punishment may contribute to an increase in the number of murders. According to two Northeastern University sociologists, capital punishment is an incitement to murder. William Bowers and Glenn Pierce based their findings on records of 695 executions conducted in New York between 1907 and 1963.

"We found that in the month after an execution, there was an average of two additional homicides over the normal rate," says Bowers. "Executions have a brutalizing effect on unstable individuals and do not deter potential killers. It is precisely for such people that an execution may convey the message of lethal vengeance. The deterrence theory behind capital punishment assumes that potential offenders exercise rational judgment in deciding whether or not to kill."

Business lunch bad for business

MONTREAL - The conventional business lunch may leave diners in a far from ideal state to conduct their affairs. Indeed, an American psychologist says winos probably have a better diet than a businessman who lunches on martinis, steak, vegetables and cake.

"The businessman is consuming very rich food, what I call 'extreme,'" says Saul Miller of Mississippi State University, who studies the way food affects behavior. "And a steady diet of meat, alcohol and sweets could be worse than the wino's steady diet of alcohol. Extreme food leads to extreme behavior."

Bad to the last drop

WASHINGTON - Everybody knows coffee can keep you awake at night. Now comes word that it can also put you to rest - for good. Five doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health say coffee drinking may be the main cause of cancer of the pancreas. Their research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the risk of cancer rose with each additional cup of coffee consumed daily.

Cancer of the pancreas, a gland near the stomach that secretes digestive juices, accounts for about 20,000 deaths a year in the United States and about 2,100 in Canada. They estimate the proportion of pancreatic cancer that is potentially attributable to coffee consumption to be slightly more than 50 percent. Over the years, coffee drinking has been linked to ulcers, high blood pressure, heart attacks, gout, birth defects, anxiety and cancers of the stomach and urinary tract.

And on the first day God died...

WINNIPEG - The first day of the week may be the last day of your life. Indeed, researchers at the University of Manitoba have discovered that Mondays may be dangerous, if not fatal, to your health. After studying the cases of nearly 4,000 men, they found that death by heart attack of apparently healthy men is about three times more likely to happen on Mondays than on other days.

Simon Rabkin, a cardiologist who was co-director of the research, says the stress of resuming work after the weekend layoff may trigger the extra deaths. "Psychological stress has been related to sudden cardiac death," says Rabkin, "and it may be that the return to work serves as a stressor." Being at home on Blue Monday didn't help much either, since 47 percent of the fatal heart attacks occurring in the home also happened on Monday.

Revenge of the empty stomach

PARIS - Skipping breakfast might get you to work on time but it may also get you into a traffic accident a few hours later. In a study carried out for the Centre for Insurance Documentation and Information, a team of French doctors said 84 percent of all persons presumed responsible for late-morning car accidents had not eaten breakfast. The phenomenon, called "11 o'clock stress," is also apparent in schoolchildren, but with less dramatic consequences, such as decreased attentiveness or sleepiness in the hour before lunch. In their report, the doctors criticized the habit of depriving the body of food for 16 hours - from the evening meal until noon the next day - and then submitting it to the onslaught of two heavy meals over an eight-hour period.

In a related U.S. follow-up study of 7,000 men and women, researchers found that skipping breakfast is among seven health risks that increase your chance of an early death. The study, by the University of California at the Los Angeles Center for Health Services, reported that death rates were 40 percent higher for men and 28 percent higher for women who "rarely or sometimes" ate breakfast, compared to those who ate breakfast "almost every day."

Love life up in smoke

TORONTO - Cigarette smokers who want to stop smoking have a new reason to kick the habit: it can cause impotence. So says Dr. John Rabkin, a urologist at Toronto's Wellesley Hospital, who explains that peripheral vascular disease - constriction of the arteries and veins - is more common in smokers and can mean that blood is not pumped into the penis.

Kicking things off on the right foot

SEATTLE - Children who wear corrective shoes may be doing themselves more harm than good. Dr. Lynn Staheli, of the Children's Orthopedic Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, says not only is corrective footwear for children often unnecessary but harmful. The child's foot often has to fight the shape of the supposedly remedial shoe, Staheli explains, and his self-image may suffer through decreased mobility and playmates' teasing. Dr. Staheli believes a distinction should be made between structural deformities caused by disease such as polio, congenital anomalies or injury, and normal variations such as flat feet, knock-knees or bowlegs, which usually correct spontaneously.

Idiot box found heartless

MONTREAL - There may be something sinister to the TV after all. According to Carin Rubinstein, assistant editor of Psychology Today, "Television is the deadliest weapon for a person who is lonely. The viewer just sits there passively without any interaction."

Rubinstein, who spent three years researching the causes and effects of loneliness, found that there are two main types of lonely people. "The first type lacks any intimate attachment whether it's a spouse or a lover," she explains. "The second type has no network of friends. They may be in a strange town and not know anyone or they may have difficulty in forming attachments with people."

Copycats' anguish

NEW YORK - You may get more than a reproduction of your original when you make a photocopy. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that a chemical used in certain photocopying machines is a cancer-causing agent. Trinitrofluorenone (TNF) is used in certain models in the coating of the photoconductor, a thin sheet that wraps around the drum. Traces have also been discovered in used toner dust, in the air surrounding certain machines and on final copies. In tests analyzed by the EPA, the chemicals induced mutations in animal and bacteria cells and cancer in rats and mice.

Home sweet home

NEW YORK - In fixing up your house, you not only make it cozier but you may also set the stage for a horror show of hazards. According to U.S. government reports, potential threats to health and safety are now feared lurking behind walls, underfoot, in plain sight or in the air, in the form of aluminum wiring, urea formaldehyde insulation, asbestos products, radioactive building stone and flammable furniture.

"The nature of the threat has changed," says Susan King, chairman of the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which had raised many of the new concerns. "You're not talking about a loose roller-skate on the stairs. You're talking about sophisticated problems, unknown hazards - overloads from high-tech appliances, toxic fumes from burning plastics and nonnatural fabrics and insulation we all thought was good."

The sensual mess

TORONTO - A neat house may spell curtains for your sex life. Marriage counselors say the state of your home - and which partner does which bit of dirty work - speaks volumes about the state of your marriage.

According to Pat Mackay, a Toronto marriage counselor, housework hassles over tidying sometimes indicate a rocky sex life. "A woman who's been raised with extremely Puritan sexual mores is usually also scrupulous about housework - clean-crazy," says Mackay. "She's extremely uptight, unable to relax around the house or in bed. She's the type of woman who'll stay up to 2 a.m. ironing. Often her husband will deny her help with the housework because he feels she's denying him sexual intimacy."

Master's lament

BOSTON - Taking your dog for a walk may be good for your dog but bad for you. According to a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, such an outing may lead to "dog-walker's elbow."

Dr. William Mebane III, a physician at Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill Hospital and owner of a Labrador retriever, complained of an inflamed left elbow that would not go away - but then inexplicably switched to his right elbow. Each tub on the leash by his dog, Mebane explained, increased the pressure on his sore elbow - medically the tip of the bone called the epicondyle - and switching the leash from the left to the right simply moved the location of the problem.

And now for the good news...

It's only proper that we try to end this roundup on a hopeful note. So lest we send you diving for cover, truly convinced the sky is about to fall, we present one last news item:

NEW YORK - You may think breaking into tears looks bad but it actually does you a world of good. Crying when everything seems unbearable, says Dr. William Frey, of the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota, is much healthier for you than keeping a stiff upper lip. In a report in New Scientist, Frey says tears brought on by sadness may help rid your body of emotionally toxic substances. The standard scientific view that tears have no purpose except to keep the lungs and nasal passages moist is challenged by Frey, whose experiments show a chemical difference between tears wept in anguish and those shed in response to cold, wind or dust. Dr. Frey suggests that stress-related diseases such as peptic ulcers may be aggravated by the suppression of tears.

Get our your hankies.

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