From DIY Death To Live-Longer Workouts: Juiciest Health Stories Of 2013

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happy new year

When people ask what we cover here at CommonHealth, we tell them our beat is broad, encompassing everything from personal health and medical research to health-related policy and politics.

But looking back at our 2013 oeuvre, we could also say that our beat ranges from cradle to grave, from below the belt to above the neck, from big-world news to inner-world angst.

2013 has been a banner year for CommonHealth: We crossed the 1-million-hits-a-month mark. (A million thanks to all who clicked or shared or tweeted.) We partnered with Slate to launch a regular podcast called The Checkup, which is expected to resume next year. And WBUR listeners heard us more on air than ever, as we crossed back and forth between media platforms.

More soon on our hopes and goals for 2014, but is there anything you'd like to see more or less or just different? Please let us know in the comments below. For now, here are our top  CommonHealth posts from 2013, based on traffic, reader response and a little personal bias. Here's to a health-filled 2014.

1. DIY Death: Natural, At-Home Funerals And Their Boomer Appeal
Death remains a topic that many of us would rather avoid. And when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of caring for the dead, most of us tend to think it’s best — and furthermore, required by law — to let professional funeral arrangers handle the arrangements. Well, it turns out that in most states it’s perfectly legal to care for your own dead. And, with new momentum to shatter longstanding taboos and stop tip-toeing around death — from “death with dignity” measures sweeping the country to projects promoting kitchen table “conversations”about our deepest end-of-life wishes — a re-energized DIY death movement is emerging.

2. Is It Time To Rethink Co-Sleeping?
bedsharePediatricians and public health officials have long warned that “co-sleeping,” or sharing a bed with an infant, is unsafe. But let’s face it: almost everybody does it. So perhaps the time has come for the public health message to focus less on advising against it and more on advising how to do it more safely.

3. Caring For Kevin: An Autistic Man, An Exceptional Doctor, A Life Renewed
Institutionalized since childhood, Kevin, now 56, has been losing his sight for the past two years to the point that doctors said he can see little more than shadows. He’s here at Boston Medical Center awaiting cataract surgery, a fairly simple procedure that generally takes about 30 minutes in the operating room. But for Kevin, who has long feared doctors and has a history of aggressive, unpredictable behavior — like hitting himself or inadvertently hurting others or running away when he’s in distress — the procedure isn’t simple at all.

4. Long After Recession's End, Deep Layoff Scars May Remain
Everybody knows it hurts to lose your job. But what has caught me by surprise is that even though my family didn’t suffer much financially from my layoff, and even though I tend to be pretty upbeat and resilient, and even though I’ve landed well, it still hurts. More than four years later, I’m still not fully over it. At work, I feel hypervigilant – as if nothing I do is ever enough, or good enough, to feel safe. At home, making life plans fills me with anxiety. Which makes me wonder: Are these feelings normal?


5. I'm Finally Thin — But Is Living In A Crazymaking Food Prison Really Worth It?
It shocks me to even write this, but after a zaftig childhood and a curvy-bordering-on-chunky early adulthood, I find myself, in middle age, after two kids, to have reached my “ideal” weight. But lately I wonder if it’s really worth it.

 6. Every Minute Of Exercise Could Lengthen Your Life Seven Minutes
If you play with the data of a recent major paper on exercise and longevity, you can calculate that not only do you get the time back; it comes back to you multiplied — possibly by as much as seven or eight or nine.

7. The Scariest Reason To Get The Shingles Vaccine
The reason my heart dropped when I saw my rash — and the reason I am now going to pay out of pocket for the vaccine because my health insurance covers it only for those over 60 — is an affliction even less familiar to most people than shingles. It is called postherpetic neuralgia. Think of it as “Extended Release” shingles. Or as the closest thing to the trials of Job for an unlucky few.

8. ‘Thigh Gap’: Reflections On Teenage Girls’ Latest Obsession
That extra layer of influence is coming from the Internet and social media, and the way I see it, it’s like peer pressure on steroids — a vehicle for immediate feedback about you, the way you look, or what you think of others. And those opinions are so widely broadcast. Depending on a teen’s social media prowess, that can mean hundreds, even thousands of extra eyes.

(Photo: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Photo: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

9. Why A Sex Therapist Worries About Internet Porn
You may have seen the recent film Don Jon, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jon, an Internet porn addict whose habit hurts his love life. I see too many Jons in my office...I see a sexual and relational train wreck happening, and I need to speak out.

10. A Doctor’s Decision To Quit 
When I introduce myself as a physician who left clinical practice, non-physicians ask me why I left. They’re generally intrigued that someone who sacrificed many years and many dollars for medical training would then change her mind. But physicians, almost universally, never ask me why I left. Instead, they ask me how.  It may be dramatic and self-serving to frame my career change as a way to avoid suicide, but I can attest that medicine was not conducive to my health.

Special thanks to WBUR's Martha Bebinger, CommonHealth's founder, whose deep grasp of health care's Byzantine ways is unmatched by any reporter we know. Her knowledge and humanity continue to enrich the site immeasurably. A few of her notable 2013 reports:

Web Glitches Snarl Health Insurance Enrollment In Mass.
Mass. Employers May Sue Feds Over Obamacare Small-Business Premiums
Marathon Bombing Victim Makes Strides Toward Her New Normal
Medicare, You Can Do Better (Or Why You Need A Translator For This Post)
Searching For The Best Colonoscopy In Town

And just some personal faves:
My Son, The Dragon Slayer: Risks And Rewards Of Growing Up Gaming
Proof In The Pants: A Pivotal Moment In Pre-Viagra History
How Gardening Is Better Than Parenting: Let's Count The Ways
When A Patient Asks: Why Won't Anybody Just Talk To Me?
High Anxiety: How I (Sort of) Overcame My Fear Of Flying

What were yours?

This program aired on December 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.