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Complete Health Reporting: Does Baldness Really Need a Cure?

Complete Health Reporting: Does Baldness Really Need a Cure?

Picture of William Heisel

baldness, alopecia, reporting on health, william heisel

Last week, I posted a piece on disease mongering. It bounced around Twitter for a while, eliciting great comments and a suggestion from one writer that we start calling ourselves "health mongers" (although that could be the label applied to another damaging type of journalism.)

Feeling enthusiastic again about the future of journalism and my ability to influence a tiny corner of it, I opened TweetDeck on Friday to see this Scientific American headline: "Treating Baldness is ‘Not Like Growing Grass': Progress may seem slow, but new treatments for hair loss are under way."

Yes. There are men who want to know why there are no pills to stop hair from falling out. Advice columnists in men's magazines must have gigabytes of emails asking this very question.

But do we have to talk about hair loss in terms of "treatment"? Do we have to buy into the marketing push for a hair loss drug by referring to one of the many experiences of getting older as "androgenic alopecia"?

The story broke the first rule of disease mongering prevention. It made everyday life into a medical condition.

Accompanying the article was a photo of a man's bald head. Just the scalp, mind you, lest the poor man have to live with the shame of the world knowing that he suffers from baldness. The photo signals that the world needed to pause for a moment and consider the gravity of baldness.

This is standard issue for health stories, of course.

Story about marijuana? Upload a photo of someone lighting up with their eyes cropped out to prevent identification by federal agents.

Story about Alzheimer's? Upload photo of an elderly person covering their face to indicate confusion and sadness while also obscuring their identity.

Story about androgenic alopecia? Shiny bald head at the ready.

The good news for photographers is they can walk down any street, hand every third man $20 and say, "Can I shoot the top of your head? We're doing a story about androgenic alopecia, and we are trying to capture the real experiences of victims. Don't worry, though, we won't let anyone know that it's you in the picture."

Should we "treat" crow's feet? Should we "treat" graying hair? Should we "treat" the increasing propensity to wear fanny packs as we age?

The story answers with a solid yes. The story may have started with the light touch of hair as front lawn, but it ended as heavy as a grand piano falling out of a window on the 42ndfloor. To make sure nobody missed the point that Baldness Is A Big Deal, with the help of baldness researcher George Cotsarelis, at the University of Pennsylvania, it enlisted the sure-to-scare powers of cancer.

As scientists continue to search for treatments to androgenic alopecia, they recommend patience. "People think of it like growing grass or something, but it's nothing like that," Cotsarelis says. "It's like trying to treat cancer; it's a complicated process."

Except it's not like trying to treat cancer. Ask someone who actually treats cancer. Better yet, ask a cancer patient. Many of them, too, end up losing their hair during the process. I can assure you that, given the choice, they would gladly grow old without cancer and spend very little time worrying about whether they were going bald as part of the natural course of things.

Photo credit: William Murphy via Flickr

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