When we look back on 2015, we may remember it as the year women got their own “little pink pill,” sugar and bacon got a bad (okay, an even worse) rap, and one lucky firefighter got a whole new face. These past 12 months have certainly produced their fair share of fascinating medical newssome stories that taught us new lessons about our health, and others that reinforced beliefs we’ve suspected for years.
Thanks to recent discoveries and breakthroughs, we’re more informed than ever about how to live happy, healthy lives. Here are some of the biggest health stories of the year, and what they can teach us about our bodies, our minds, and our lifestyle choices.
We probably drink more than we should
Hot off the heels of New Year’s festivities, 2015 started off with a bang: According to a CDC report published in January, alcohol poisoningcaused by consuming too much alcohol in too short a timekills six Americans a day. Adults 35 to 64 make up three-quarters of these deaths, the report noted, while another study found that people who work long hours may be more likely to drink to excess.
But one or two drinks a day is still good for us, right? Maybe not. A British study published in February found that the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking may be overblown, and another study from August reported that even one drink a day was associated with an increased breast cancer risk for women. And don’t even think about drinking while pregnantnot even a little: The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new warning in October that “no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe” during any trimester.
Vaccines are (still) safe
The supposed link between vaccines and autism has been debunked many times, but a study published in April that looked at the medical records of nearly 96,000 children offers perhaps the most definitive proof that there is no relationship between the two. Parents shouldn’t worry about other adverse side effects from vaccine shots, either: A government report released in October found that out of 25 million vaccinations given last year, only 33 people had serious reactions.
Still, many parents still choose not to vaccinate their childrenleaving roughly 1 in 8 American kids vulnerable to deadly diseases like measles. More than 100 measles cases were reported in the first month of 2015, with outbreaks occurring in California (at Disneyland) and Arizona, among other states. In June, California governor Jerry Brown signed a mandatory school vaccination bill, eliminating the right for a parent to refuse a child’s vaccination on the grounds of “personal belief.”
Related: 12 Myths and Facts About Vaccines
The news on sitting keeps getting worse
Sitting has been dubbed “the new smoking” in recent years, and 2015 only added more fuel to the fire. One study suggested that being sedentary may be twice as deadly as being obese, while another found that too much sittingeven among people who exercise regularlywas linked to higher rates of hospitalization, heart disease, and cancer. Time spent on the couch or in a desk chair may even contribute to anxiety, according to one Australian study.
The news isn’t all bad, though. Just two minutes of walking every hour can reverse some of sitting’s harmful effects, according to a study published in April. And in July, Australian researchers reported that standing for an extra two hours a day, rather than sitting, was linked to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Even fidgeting may offer some protection, says a British study published in September.
We can’t take food safety for granted
It was difficult to keep up with all of this year’s food recalls, which included frozen dinners, bottled water, hummus, ranch dressing, turkey bacon, bread and green beans, soft cheeses, cucumbers, Cheerios, chicken salad, and at least two brands of ice cream. In restaurant news, Chipotle temporarily closed 43 of its locations after diners in Washington and Oregon became sick.
Hopefully, 2016 will see fewer outbreaks of harmful bacteria like listeria, E. coli, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, thanks to new regulations finalized by the FDA in November. The rules establish enforceable safety standards for produce, and make importers accountable for food brought into the United States.
Smartphones are more dangerous than sharks
If you avoided the ocean last summer because of an uptick in shark attacks, you may be worrying about the wrong hazard. Yes, there were more Jaws-style incidents this year than normal, but according to a September report from Mashable, more people died this year while attempting to take “selfie” photos than from swimming in shark-infested waters.
Speaking of selfies, they’ve also been linked to narcissism and alienation from friends and family, even when they’re not causing physical danger. And they’re not the only risky smartphone behavior we learned about this year: Being separated from our phones can cause anxiety and cognitive impairment, found a study published in January. On the other hand, paying too much attention to them can cause our loved ones to feel “phone snubbed,” or “phubbed”, according to an October study. One good bit of smartphone news? Texting bans seem to be saving lives.
Breastfeeding is beneficial, but still controversial
Studies published this year have found that breastfeeding can help ease babies’ transition to solid food, protect them against childhood leukemia, and reduce their risk of dental problems. It may even protect moms against diabetes, and may be linked to a child’s future learning potential.
But nursing moms still don’t have it easy. Women are routinely asked not to breastfeed in public; some have even been shamed on social media for doing so. In January, one mom was stopped from taking her breast pump on board a plane, and in April, actress Alyssa Milano had her breast milk confiscated at London’s Heathrow airport. Some mom-friendly companies have made changes that make breastfeeding easier and more comfortable; here’s hoping more get on board in 2016.
Coffee really is good for us
The bottom line about coffee and health has notoriously see-sawed over the years. But in the past few months, the news has been overwhelmingly positive for java lovers.
Drinking coffee may protect against melanoma and liver cancer, reported studies in January and March. Also in March, the government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that moderate coffee consumptionthree to five 8-ounce cups a dayisn’t linked to any long-term dangers for healthy people. In November, a National Institutes of Health-funded study found that drinking coffee (even decaf) may help people live longer. Just go easy on the sugar and cream, say the study authors.
Related: The Many Perks of Coffee
Ticks carry more than just Lyme disease
We read plenty of news about Lyme disease this year, including how difficult it can be to get a diagnosis, and the mysterious long-term effects it can have on some people. But we also learned about other tick-borne diseases that are just as scaryif not more so. Ticks in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes can transmit the Powassan virus, which can cause meningitis and encephalitis, scientists warned. And in Oklahoma this summer, a woman diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (also spread by ticks) developed a life-threatening infection that required amputations of both her hands and feet.
Beauty comes in all sizes
This was the year of the plus-size model: In January, Tess Holliday became the first woman of her size (22) to be signed by a major modeling agency. In February, Sports Illustrated announced its first ever size-12 woman to appear in its swimsuit issue. Plus-size clothing chain Lane Bryant made headlines with its #ImNoAngel campaign in April, and Women’s Running magazine got in on the action with a plus-size runner on its July cover. With all of these firsts, it only makes sense that a documentary on plus-size models is underway for 2016.
Contact sports can have real consequences
Sports with high rates of concussions and head trauma have been worrying doctors for years. In January, a study on former National Football League players found that those who began playing tackle football before age 12 faced a higher risk of memory and thinking problems as adults. Another study published in September found that 96 percent of deceased NFL players tested positive for the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
To make a potentially dangerous situation even worse, two new studies this year found that many middle-school and high-school coaches don’t know how to recognize and respond to concussions properly. But some steps are being taken to protect kids: In November, the governing body for U.S. soccer issued new guidelines stating that players under age 10 should not head the ball.