Old wives' tales and medicine balls

Women do not compete against men in sport because of medical myths about their bodies, says an article in this month's British Journal Of Sports Medicine. So much for my shouting 'Unfair' at last year's sports day when the fifth-year junior girls raced with the boys in the 100 metres.

According to Ellis Cashmore, a professor of sociology at Staffordshire University, it's only in the past 300 years that anatomists have pointed out differences between men and women's bodies, apart from the most obvious ones. Before then they were seen as fairly similar. By the late 19th century, closer examination led to (male) anatomists looking for inferiorities in women's bodies and believing even their organs had different functions to men's. And after the discovery of hormones, physicians began advising the 'fragile' sex to lay off exercise (although throwing bean bags and gentle golf were recommended for period pains).

Cashmore's argument is that despite women's exclusion from most sports for the first half of this century, they have caught men up rather rapidly. He points out that Tagla Laroupe's 2:20.47 marathon record may lag behind Roberto Da Costa's 2:09.07 but women's records have only been kept since 1964. Women's best times have improved by an average per year of 2 minutes 47 seconds - men's by a mere 66 seconds. Cycling and swimming have seen comparable rates of increase. Perhaps if it hadn't been for these medical myths, women would be queueing up to take on Lennox Lewis.

Medicine attracts mythology. Some of it is quaint and fairly harmless; the archetypal 'old wives' tale'. There's no real harm in eating sweet things to get a girl baby or salty for a boy. Some of it, though, is more disturbing. There's an urban myth perpetuated about young people being murdered or drugged and having their organs removed. I remember hearing this story first as a medical student, when the victim was said to be a student found comatose with a scar down his back. It resurfaced last month involving orphans in Egypt. A few years ago a French social scientist who specialises in investigating urban myths did an extensive study into the kidney-snatching stories. She found no evidence to support them.

There are other, less grisly medical myths that many of us believe. Last week I was reluctant to take my baby to our GP's surgery while my son had his cough seen to (you should never treat your own family). I knew, you see, that babies can pick up colds from GPs' surgeries - all those nasty germs being hacked up. But a study in the New England Journal says this isn't so. Over 120 pairs of children - half unwell, half well - were monitored after being in a surgery for 20 minutes. Many played with toys - notorious for harbouring germs. There was no evidence that being in a surgery made any of them ill.

Most mothers of my generation know that children who play outside without jumpers on in winter are not at increased risk of catching colds, because a cold is a virus and needs to invade your respiratory system. But grannies still insist on yelling, 'You'll catch your death' if a child goes outside without a coat on. There are more colds in winter, but that's because people stay indoors more where the virus is more easily spread.

Some medical myths go unchallenged because the research to prove or disprove it hasn't been done. Some are still being argued over by doctors. Circumcision, for example, is said to protect against cancer of the penis. But a letter in the British Medical Journal a few years ago, co-signed by an assistant professor of paediatrics and a medical historian, argues otherwise, citing a study of the rate of cancer of the penis in elderly men in the US who had been circumcised as infants. Although there's other evidence that cancer of the penis is much less common in circumcised men, it's not clear whether uncircumcised men could protect themselves by washing behind their foreskins.

There are some myths that might influence how you led your life. Everyone's heard of people dropping dead shortly after retiring at 65. Retiring early, therefore, might mean you live longer. Unfortunately there's more research suggesting early retirement is associated with an increase in early death than a long, healthy life. It may be that unreported health problems that led to the early retirement have biased the results.

Since my baby is teething, I am interested in whether or not it's a myth that sprouting a tooth causes a fever. According to a study in the Archives Of Diseases In Childhood, it can cause a mild one. Doctors have always been loath to validate this on the grounds that parents might ignore a serious illness, blaming it on teething. As with the best myths that turn out to be true, the authors write, 'We have no explanation to offer at this stage for the observation.'

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.