Medical Matters: Eat, drink and be merry, for being Irish may be enough to kill you

Mon, Jun 2, 2014, 16:00

It has been some time since we had a lighthearted column. So, for those of us who may be struggling to move beyond first gear this morning after a relaxing bank-holiday weekend, this week’s offering is designed not to tax your grey matter.

Unlike most medical journals, Medical Hypotheses is devoted to publishing ideas rather than the results of scientific experiments. It’s a publication of always interesting and sometimes humorous ideas. Here are some examples:

Do gentlemen prefer blondes? One hypothesis, driven by evolutionary theory, is that blond hair is a measure of fitness. According to this idea, blond hair and fair skin make it easier to see the signs of disease and ill health.

There is no doubt that it is easier for doctors to spot anaemia, cyanosis (a possible sign of heart disease), jaundice and skin problems in fair-skinned individuals.

The theory goes that, in ancient times, when infection and microbes could cause death easily, there was an evolutionary need to be attracted to a healthy mate to increase the chances of having healthy children. Hence, according to researchers from the University of California, blondes became the first choice for mating.

I’m not sure this hypothesis will attract research funding any time soon.

Did you ever wonder about the purpose of ear wax? I have had plenty of opportunity over the years to consider this, given the number of times I have removed bothersome wax from a patient’s ear.

Not that I ever came up with the “man was semiaquatic” theory, which goes something like this: when it is wet, ear wax absorbs water and swells, thereby blocking the ear canal. So, back when humans were busy amphibians, the theory goes that any ear wax would swell and keep out infection; it would then dry out, restoring hearing when they emerged from water on to dry land.

Vino etymology

If you imbibed some vino veritas over the weekend, you may be interested to know that grapes feature prominently in medical etymology.

Uvea and uvula come from the Latin word for a single grape, uva.

Uvea was originally the choroid surface of the eye because, in appearance, it resembles the skin of a grape; now the term is used to describe the iris, ciliary muscle and choroid as a unit.

The uvula is the piece of tissue you see dangling from your upper palate when you open your mouth wide; it really does look like a hanging grape.

Staphylitis, the medical name for inflammation of the uvula, and staphylococci, the bacteria that cluster in bunches like grapes, are both derived from the Greek for a bunch of grapes – staphule.

Bagassosis, an occupational lung disease, gets its name from the Spanish word bagazo, which refers to the residue of grapes left after pressing.

Speaking of occupation, quite a few diseases are named after occupations or pursuits: farmer’s lung, housemaid’s knee and painter’s colic are linked to jobs; while athlete’s foot, swimmer’s shoulder and jogger’s nipple are sports related.

Wine and chocolate

Finally, from a reader who enjoyed the recent column on the health benefits of red wine and chocolate, comes a welcome humourous contribution.

The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Irish.

Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Irish.

Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Irish.

The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Irish.

The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Irish.

Conclusion: Eat and drink what you like. Being Irish is apparently what kills you.

As the reader notes, “It’s a relief to know the truth after all those conflicting nutritional studies.”

Have a good week.

mhouston@irishtimes.com muirishouston.com

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