"We write about health. We report on it. But we understand much more about national health policy than our own health. The problem with journalists is they write these great stories ? but they don't necessarily read them," said Kenn Venit, vice president of Primo Newservice Inc. ? and a survivor of two heart attacks.
Before his heart attacks prompted a complete change in his lifestyle, Venit, a television news consultant, was like a lot of journalists. He was working too much, sleeping too little, traveling frequently and centering his health around the profession's four favorite substances: Aspirin, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
So at a convention session of the Society of Professional Journalists, filled with reporters and editors who had their notebooks poised, Venit urged journalists not only to report the advice of neurologist Dr. William Hammesfahr ? but to heed it, too.
The first thing Hammesfahr did was administer a quick stress test to the 200 or so journalists. More than half showed a telltale sign of repetitive stress syndrome ? a condition in which medical stress has repeatedly narrowed a person's blood vessels below 30% of their original size and the vessels have lost their ability to open back up.
More than half, in other words, were on their way to experience emotional problems, mood swings, memory loss, changes in sleep patterns ? and, with no change in their lifestyles, possible early death through stroke or heart attack.
Along the way, Hammesfahr said, these people will also gradually become worse journalists.
"Stress affects your ability to set up an interview. It affects your ability to do that interview well. It affects your understanding of what that person is telling you," Hammesfahr said.
"Your people will not get the story right unless they can handle stress," Hammesfahr said.
Hammesfahr, who is married to a journalist, treats many print and television journalists in his Clearwater, Fla., practice. In an interview, he said narrowed blood vessels and the attendant emotional and intellectual problems are so common among journalists as to be "endemic."
For journalists, Hammesfahr said, the problem is not really the adrenalin-filled moments of covering a big story ? but the grinding workday routine of the newsroom.
"If you're facing a deadline, but you're excited and you have camaraderie in the newsroom and you're happy, your blood vessels will be normal, your heart rate will be normal, your blood pressure will be normal. You will not be having physical, medical stress," he said.
On the other hand, Hammesfahr said, "The newsroom environment . . . is working against journalists."
For one thing, he said, the newsroom is full of electronics, such as computer screens and fluorescent lighting, both of which, studies increasingly show, narrow blood vessels and can lead to chronic stress syndrome.
"What happens in a newsroom is your blood vessels stay narrow ? and never get a chance to relay," he said.
"You put a normal person in front of a computer for 15 minutes, and that person's blood vessels will constrict seventy percent. We can document that with EKG [heart monitors]," Hammesfahr said.
When a journalist is below the 30% size threshold, the damage is that much worse. In his own practice, he traced the rapid intellectual decline of a 13-year-old former honors student to her introduction to computers.
"When we put her in front of a computer, her brain scan was exactly like that of someone with Alzheimer's [disease]," he said.
The first thing journalists should do, he said, is get eyeglasses with polarized lens, which stops the effect.
The rotating shifts that many journalists must endure also play havoc with their health, Hammesfahr said.
"You know doctors when they are doing their internships have rotating shifts, and it's really rough," he said. "But that only lasts for a year or two years. You guys have these rotating schedules that continue for years, sometimes all your careers. And your body can't handle that."
Coffee and cigarettes also narrow blood vessels, exacerbating the effects of the electronics and disrupted sleep. Another journalist's favorite, alcohol, leeches vitamins from the body, even if it is not used in amounts that cause its more famous damages.
In addition to modifying work schedules and dietary habits, Hammesfahr recommends journalists take big doses of vitamins ? especially B-complex vitamins ? in the amounts typically found in over-the-counter tablets for pregnant women.
By: Mark Fitzgerald WHEN IT COMES to their health, a common failing of journalists is hurting them: They don't read their own paper.