A return to the Bronze Age
June 20, 2005
Remember the good old days when we could sit out next to the pool, baste ourselves in Hawaiian Tropics tanning oil, soak up
rays until we were as mellow as our sun tea, and at the end of the day feel like we did something good for ourselves? It felt so nice, in fact, that we actually believed it was healthy.
Then, along came the experts with their rain clouds to eclipse our solar-powered fun. They proved to us that the ozone layer was thinning along with our skin. The sun was giving us skin cancer and (gasp) making us look old!
Well, for those of us in Aspen, the course of action was obvious.
There was absolutely no place in this town of the young (looking) and fit for anything that was unhealthy and made you show your age. The exceptions to this were for things that could be purchased from a pusher or a bartender ” an anomaly that remains unexplained yet today.
But guess what? Just when your skin was scared smooth, the experts are back and wearing their Bermuda shorts telling us now that the sun’s formerly damaging rays are good for us again.
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That’s right! Convincing evidence indicates that we are not getting enough sun anymore. Sunscreens, sunhats, and indoor recreation centers are preventing our bodies from soaking up the vitamin D we need to fight all kinds of cancers. One study by Harvard professor Dr. Edward Giovannucci suggests that for every one case of skin cancer due to overexposure to the sun, another 30 cases of more lethal forms of the disease might be prevented from the vitamin D we can obtain by, well, getting a good, healthy tan.
As reported by Marilyn Marchione in a recent Associated Press story, many people are not getting enough vitamin D, and it’s difficult for our bodies to metabolize it from food or supplements. The sun is still the best way to get it.
Dr. Giovannucci told a gathering of cancer scientists, “I would challenge anyone to find an area or nutrient or any factor that has such consistent anti-cancer benefits as vitamin D. The data are really quite remarkable.”
Apparently some are listening. In response to his presentation, The American Cancer Society is reviewing its sun protection guidelines. Dr. Allan Halpern, dermatology chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York said, “I find the evidence to be mounting and increasingly compelling.”
Of course, nobody agrees on just how much sun we need. A lot depends on our skin types, where we live, what time of year it is, etc. And nobody is suggesting that we begin each summer with a six hour, foil-wrapped searing to build our “base tans” like in the old days. In fact, despite the potential health benefits from the sun, there is little doubt that, over a period of years, exposure to it will leave your skin looking as rough as a pair of 1970s clod hoppers after a hike to Snowmass Lake during monsoon season.
Could the news be any worse for us Aspenites? We are now faced with the ultimate dilemma: Do we let ourselves tan for good health and live long, healthy lives only to prematurely end up looking like guano-pitted gargoyles? Or, do we protect our skin from the damaging sun’s rays, preserving youthful looks and beauty only to prematurely end up looking like a mound of dirt in the cemetery?
It’s the Achillean dilemma all over again.
You remember Homer don’t you? The great warrior Achilles faced the choice of either skipping the battle of Troy to live a long, anonymous life, or fight to the death in triumphant glory for the cause. At first, he sat idly by watching his comrades get soundly thrashed in the battle. He moped around and everyone thought he was a loser. Eventually, he could stand it no longer and he joined the fight. As predicted, he was killed. But, his friends lit up one hell of a pyre in his honor.
Can we learn anything from Achilles’ story in the Iliad? I don’t know, the outcome of that tale seemed pretty obvious to me from the get-go. The problem is that Achilles didn’t have a wife or kids, and he wasn’t settled comfortably into the good life of Snowmass Village. It’s hard for me to relate to his choice.
Sure, if all I had to do was impress my friends and act cool, I’d just camp out in the gym all day doing the Stair Master and pumping iron. I would head out at night, and man would I look young and fit. You could inspect me from cheek to cheeks and never find a wrinkle. Nobody would have to know about my vitamin D deficiency and how it was slowly killing me from the inside out. When my time did come, my friends would throw the best damn open casket funeral this town has ever seen! They would talk about me at the bars and nightclubs forever! I’d be a hero!
But that’s not me. I’m past the risk-taking stage of my life. I’ve given up climbing big mountains. The only shots I take are at the doctor’s office. I always wear my helmet on bike or skis. I rarely cross Main Street against the light. Now, I guess it’s time to put away the sunscreen, too. I’m going to the beach and I’m coming back bronzed.
I’ve got a wife. I’ve got kids. I like hangin’ with them and I want to be doing it for a long time to come. If staying healthy means I have to look like an old surfer, so be it. Even if I end up looking weathered like John Wayne in a spaghetti western or swarthy like Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” maybe the people I love will see me as a hero just the same.
Now, the only questions remaining are: Is red wine better for me than dark beer? Do the benefits of eating fish oil outweigh the chances of contracting mercury poisoning? Is charbroiled steak more likely to cause colon cancer than a dish of pasta is to make me overweight? Are the effects of being dehydrated more detrimental than the electrolyte imbalance caused by absorbing too much water? Is it safe to consume one or more caffeinated beverages, while eating a medium-rare pork sandwich at the beach, less than an hour before swimming?
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