Participating in culturally elite activities related to lower BMI?

A new sociological study suggests there is a relationship between participating in certain cultural activities and having a lower BMI:

The study uses survey data from 17 nations, most of which are in Europe. In each country, a representative sample of the population was asked not only about height and weight, but also about time spent in a variety of activities. These included reading, going to cultural events, socializing with family and friends, attending sporting events, watching TV, going shopping, and exercising.A scale that measures interest in ideas, art, and knowledge—by surveying the amount of time spent reading, attending cultural events, going to movies, and using the Internet—is associated as strongly as exercise with a lower body-mass index, or BMI (a measure of weight relative to height). In other words, reading and exercise appear similarly beneficial in terms of BMI.

In contrast, people participating in other activities such as watching TV, socializing, playing cards, attending sporting events, and shopping have higher average BMI. Although time spent reading and time spent watching TV both expend few calories, one is associated with lower weight, and the other with higher weight…

So why might reading and related cultural activities be associated with thinness? The social meaning of the activity rather than the activity itself must be important for weight control. Leisure-time activities involve more than the calories burned; they also reflect differences across social groups in motives and means for good health.

These sound like interesting findings but I wonder if this is a classic example of “correlation does not imply causation.” Since these cultural activities might be related to social class, how do these findings line up with current statistics about weight (and health) by social class?

Responses to AIDS as told through posters

A collection of “more than 6,200 posters in 60 languages from 100-plus countries” regarding AIDS is being made available to the public through a website. Here is what these posters can tell us:

Well, naturally, you would think about it as medical history since AIDS was then a uniformly fatal disease. But the reason it’s more important as social history is because, if you look at a whole lot of the posters, you will see how different countries approached the subject. Here you’re dealing with a new disease, dealing with the closeted subject of sex, and it was really amazing to see the variation from country to country and even from groups within a country. To me, that’s by far the most striking thing about the collection.

Generally speaking, in the United States, the posters were less interesting because they had to be neutral. They had to be careful not to offend some group or some sensibility so the best American posters were usually put up by private organizations. Abroad, that wasn’t quite as true. There were some good ones that the CDC put out. One shows a young woman sitting on a chair dressed from the waist down, her legs are crossed, and it says, “A sure way not to get AIDS.” Another one, my children’s favorite, shows a young man and woman necking through the back window of a car. It says, “Vanessa was in a fatal car accident last night. Only she doesn’t know it yet.”…

The watershed was October 1986 when Surgeon General [C. Everett] Koop published his AIDS report. That totally changed the picture. That was the beginning of a huge outpouring of posters all over the world, not just the United States. He really made [it acceptable] to talk about using condoms. If you look at The New York Times, the word “condom” I don’t think appeared until the mid 1980s. I may be mistaken but it certainly didn’t appear very early.

This sounds like a very interesting collection which would be useful for examining two things:

1. How the medical knowledge was translated into cultural narratives across different countries. As the cited part above suggests, this public message would need to fit with cultural messages regarding sex and diseases. It is also interesting to think in which countries and settings posters are very effective ways for disseminating information as opposed to other options like television or radio shows and commercials, public service announcements in various forms, or through state influenced facilities like schools and hospitals.

2. How the cultural message changed over time, particularly as medical knowledge improved and the public became more educated. For example, did more recent posters have to be more edgy in order to remind people that AIDS is still something they should be concerned about?

This may just make a great example for a class session on medical sociology.

As a side note, I wonder if there is much interest in posters among historians, art museums, and those interested in social history. Earlier this year, I saw an extensive exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago of TASS (the “Soviet press agency”) posters during World War II. The exhibit was quite interesting as the posters combined art with text and design in creating a negative cultural image of Germans. Are posters primarily a mid to late 20th century phenomenon and how much can they tell us about the larger society compared to other media options?

Debating the merits of using the word “cancer”

Many would say that they know what cancer is. But medical experts suggest it is not so clear and perhaps the term “cancer” is not the best description for every situation that might usually be labelled with this term.

Though it is impossible to say whether the treatment was necessary in this case, one thing is growing increasingly clear to many researchers: The word “cancer” is out of date, and all too often it can be unnecessarily frightening…

“The definition of cancer has changed,” said Dr. Robert Aronowitz, a professor of history and sociology of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many medical investigators now speak in terms of the probability that a tumor is deadly. And they talk of a newly recognized risk of cancer screening — overdiagnosis. Screening can find what are actually harmless, if abnormal-looking, clusters of cells.

But since it is not known for sure whether they will develop into fatal cancers, doctors tend to treat them with the same methods that they use to treat clearly invasive cancers. Screening is finding “cancers” that did not need to be found. So maybe “cancer” is not always the right word for them.

This is an interesting discussion to read about after having recently completed reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Several points are found in both works:

1. Our knowledge of cancer is constantly evolving. We don’t know as much about it as the public might think.

2. Different cancers present different issues, leading to some of the issue with the term cancer. Cancers don’t have a common cause or necessarily act in the same way.

3. Screening is a big issue. Who should get screened? Is it cost-effective?

One other issue that I don’t see discussed in this article or in the book: is part of the problem with the word “cancer” the connotations that this has for people? In his book, Mukherjee suggests that cancer is associated with a bleak prognosis. When patients hear this term, they know they are in for a very difficult fight. Would changing the use of the term shift some of this conversation away from the immediate fear involving cancer to a more medical term that requires more explanation and obscures the severity a bit? Is this also in even just a little way about public relations?