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Be Well

Celebrating 35 Years: Older and, We Hope, Wiser

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

In 2019, the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter celebrates its 35th anniversary. I came on board in 1999, but several of our editors have been here for the whole ride, giving us a rich collective memory of all the health news we’ve covered. Clearly, our newsletter and its staff can boast of longevity—a gift we hope we’ve helped our readers achieve as well.

Anniversaries are a time to take stock. Looking back at more than 400 issues, I see some things we’d do differently if we could. For instance:

  • We used to blame dietary fat for heart disease. Now we know it is not so simple. There are heart-healthy unsaturated fats, such as those in fish, avocados, olive oil, and nuts. And even some saturated fatty acids, such as those in dairy and chocolate, are neutral in terms of heart health.
  • It’s hard to believe, but back in the early 1990s we advised our readers to take vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene supplements—but stopped when research indicated that such antioxidants in pill form were of no benefit and sometimes even risky.
  • Like so many health experts, we were too positive about hormone replacement therapy for women in our early years—and then perhaps too wary because of unexpectedly negative findings from the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002. While hardly the fountain of youth they were claimed to be, the hormones have turned out to be less risky than they seemed in the years following the WHI results (especially when hormone therapy is started early in menopause), and they now are accepted treatment for severe menopausal symptoms.

But our core beliefs remain intact. We’ve always believed that the key to good health is to pay attention to what you eat (with an emphasis on plant foods), stay physically and mentally active, not smoke, and get screening tests and vaccinations. We’ve always believed in the power of knowledge, with a dose of healthy skepticism thrown in, so that our readers will be wary of health-scare hucksters and think twice about buying dietary supplements and other products whose claims sound too good to be true (almost all are). Another constant: our belief in the power of social support and optimism.

What’s new at this anniversary is our wider array of UC Berkeley Health & Wellness Publications, which include the Health After 50 newsletter and 18 annual White Papers and Wellness Reports (to learn more about them, visit our online bookstore). All profits earned from our publications fund scholarships, fellowships, and student grants, plus resources for student organizations and activities here at the School of Public Health.

By our 40th and 50th anniversaries, I expect a lot more progress will have been made on the health front. There may well be a vaccine to prevent the common cold, more vaccines against cancer (like the existing HPV vaccine), and a single lifetime flu shot. We’ll know more about how genes interact with lifestyle factors and the microbiota (the trillions of microorganisms living inside us), so that we may, for example, be able to customize disease-preventing diets and lifesaving drugs. Maybe there will even be a cure, or at least good prevention, for Alzheimer’s disease.

I hope you’ll continue to join us on the ride.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see The Greatest (Public Health) Stories Ever Told.