Filler: Science keeps challenging our beliefs

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Burger and Cig Cropped

Science keeps challenging our beliefs. Photo Credit: iStock

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Lane Filler Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010

So far it's been a great year for my people: fat smokers raised by women who thought breast-feeding was a cruel hoax. It has not been as good a year for the way science that contradicts strong beliefs is received, but it rarely is.

It's World Breastfeeding Week and National Breastfeeding Month. Seemingly infinite studies and articles sing the praises of breast-feeding. When my wife was pregnant, the message we got was, "Feeding babies formula is fine, as long as you don't love them and don't mind if they grow up pudgy, asthmatic, weepy, virus-prone, palsy-wracked terrorists."

But those studies mostly didn't deal with the fact that breast-feeding parents have more in common than tricky bras. They're also healthier, whiter, better-educated and richer than the bottle bunch, which affects how kids fare.

In March, an unusually rigorous study came out. Researchers at Ohio State University used 1,773 pairs of siblings in which one baby got the breast and the other got the bottle. And it turns out that when kids get different milk but the same upbringing, there appear to be no advantages, as far as health or intellect, to breast-feeding.

So, big doings, huh? All over the evening news? Bouncing around your Facebook feed? No. The results got little coverage, with the biggest exposure coming from a New York Times blog, where the reader comments in response were mostly of the "Why do you want to kill babies?" variety.

Then, last week, a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology got a bit more notice, but left one shocking conclusion mostly ignored. It showed that running as little as five minutes per day has tremendous benefits in extending life. Looking at 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100, the runners had a 30 percent lower risk of dying and a 45 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease during the 15 years of the study. What's shocking is that this bit of physical activity is so good for you that even fat smokers who ran had a better chance of surviving than thin nonsmokers who didn't.

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Professor Timothy S. Church of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, an author of the study, said, "What matters about this study is that it shows how really important it is to get a little vigorous exercise. I'm not going to highlight that being sedentary is more dangerous than being overweight or smoking, but, yeah, that is what the data showed."

As far as stubborn misperceptions, Russell R. Pate, also an author on the mortality study and a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, said, "I deal with it all the time, these beliefs that get established in the health arena that are very hard to dislodge even when they aren't true."

Church pointed to the belief that vaccines cause autism as a stubborn myth. And both men agreed that, although it's been proven that limiting salt intake only matters for a small part of the population, you cannot convince most people of that.

All things being equal, breast-feeding makes sense if only because the milk is free, encourages bonding and is good for the health of the mother. And ideally, we should run, be thin and avoid cigarettes. The fact that being sedentary is more dangerous than being chubby or smoky doesn't mean it's time for a carton of Marlboros and a plate of Manwich.

But we shame moms who formula feed, and smokers, and fat people, too much these days. It's always seemed rude to me. The fact that we're behaving so badly based on beliefs that may not even be true rather than facts makes it even worse.

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