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The year in health: A conversation with Scott Hensley of NPR's 'Shots' blog

Doby Photography

Every year, the Take Care production team tries to bring our listeners the most relevant, interesting and current topics in health and wellness. Our aim is to bring you the information you need from the nation’s experts, but we’re not the only ones with this goal.

This week on “Take Care,” we’re joined by Scott Hensley -- editor of the NPR health blog “Shots.” He’s been with NPR since 2009 and previously founded the health blog at “The Wall Street Journal.” Hensley joins us to talk about the biggest health stories of the year (many of which you may have heard on “Take Care”) and give some insight into how his team chooses which health topics to cover.

In this interview you’ll also hear discussion on the shift to personalized medical care, the high cost of healthcare and the value of skepticism in making your own health wellness choices.

Interview highlights

On dementia, Alzheimer’s and memory loss

Hensley describes himself as a skeptic when it comes to the effectiveness of brain training games in helping combat memory loss and related diseases. He cites an analysis of the literature on brain training games and programs for that conclusion.

“Now, what would help? I think the evidence that is supportive of an intervention that most people can do -- and that has all kinds of benefits -- is exercise,” Hensley says.

On microbes, our gut and the microbiome

“There are some areas where we have seen strong evidence that changes in the microbiome lead to maybe a problem in health or can improve health,” Hensley says.

As far as the microbiome is concerned, there are two areas of study Hensley is particularly interested in: the effect of a mother’s microbiome on her child, and infections of the gastrointestinal tract like clostridium difficile.

On debunking floss

A bedrock part of personal health, as Hensley qualifies it, was blown out of the water this year when an AP reporter found there were no studies supporting the claim that regular flossing is beneficial in the long run.

“What the AP did and what I think was very helpful was to look again at ‘Well, where is the evidence for this?’” Hensley says. “How the [health] recommendation sort of falls short is trying to make a health recommendation based on what’s called a surrogate marker, or looking at something that might predict for a bigger health problem down the road.”

And what’s the problem with this method? Making recommendations for the general public based on a specific study can be difficult.

“What is a risk factor for us, or what’s a problem for us, isn’t the same as another person in our household or the person who lives next door,” Hensley says. “We’re really moving into an age where personalized medicine and more personalized recommendations are probably going to be more common.”

On costs: the EpiPen and cancer drugs

The EpiPen became a way to for people to express their discontent with drug pricing in general, Hensley says, because it’s something that affects so many people.

“These are the kinds of drugs that can be truly life-saving,” Hensley says. “It’s come to the point where even cancer doctors talk about another kind of side-effect from the latest cancer treatments and they call it ‘financial toxicity.'

On health policy

Since the election, health policy has become a big focus of the NPR “Shots” team. For example, what will happen with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare?

“Obamacare is still controversial after all this time, but it has lowered the rate of uninsured people to historic lows. And the notion that it would be repealed, as is a stated goal of President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled House and Senate leadership is going to have an effect on how many people are insured, what kind of coverage they have and there may be also changes to Medicare in a new administration,” Hensley says.

On making your own health choices

“I would say, be skeptical, and I think every claim should be met with skepticism that is in proportion to the boldness of the claim. There are so few real breakthroughs in medicine. The claims of breakthroughs that come through my email box from different people just can’t all be true. So I would say keep your skepticism, have some common sense, and if you want to dig in a little bit more deeply -- try to evaluate for yourself how good the evidence is,” Hensley says.