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Old Wives’ Tales: Truth Or Myth?

By Michele Herenstein
It seems as if everyone around me is getting sick—my mom, my best friend, and my coworkers—and they’re all blaming it on the cold weather. I think we all remember our mothers or grandmothers telling us that if we went out without a coat, we would catch a cold. And if we went out with wet hair, we would catch a chill and get sick. There were so many rules: if you do this or don’t do that, this is what will happen. However, I’ve done some reading on these possible myths, also known as old wives’ tales, and many of them seem patently false.
From what I’ve gathered, an old wives’ tale is much like an urban legend, passed down by “old wives” to the younger generation. Most old wives’ tales are false, and among the few tales with some truth, the authenticity is most likely a coincidence.
Most of us know some of the famous old wives’ tales, such as that eating chocolate causes acne; watching TV close up or too often will give you square eyes; knuckle-cracking causes arthritis; if a pregnant woman is carrying low it’s a boy, carrying high it’s a girl; and staying out in the cold without a coat causes pneumonia. And the one that I think most kids still believe is that if you are chewing gum and then swallow it, it will remain inside your body for seven years. This last one is an example of an old wives’ tale that may have been invented to deter children from unwanted behavior.
So what about the idea that if you go out with wet hair you will catch a cold? From my “research” on the Web, this is false, but there is a certain logic as to why people often get sick in the winter months more so than in summer. People stay indoors more in the winter, making it easier for viruses to spread from one person to the next.
I recall my mom telling me when I was a kid and I’d be reading in bed that I shouldn’t read in a poorly lit room because it would damage my eyes. I’ve since learned that this is a fallacy. Again, there is logic involved—reading in a well-lit room can prevent eye fatigue and make reading easier and probably more enjoyable. But nowhere have I found real evidence that reading in a dimly lit room will damage your eyes; it is a myth.
I think the information about the following old wives’ tale will make kids happy (if you dare show them this article); however, there is a caveat. Watching too much TV is not bad for your eyes, as we’ve always been told. What research has shown to be bad is watching too much TV (more than 10 hours per week) because this can cause kids to be overweight, aggressive, and slower to learn in school. I suppose parents will stick to the “watching TV is bad for your eyes” myth to get away with a good reason for their kids not to watch so much TV.
Do you have to wait an hour after eating before swimming? Not necessary, according to the Red Cross. But you should wait until digestion has begun.
Will eating carrots improve your eyesight? Nope, but carrots are rich in vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy eyesight.
Now for an old wives’ tale that is true: Fish is brain food. Fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their beneficial qualities, such as being important for brain function.
Another old wives’ tale that’s true is that too much loud noise can cause hearing loss. Scary thought, considering the volume of most iPods that kids listen to every day.
Many people are vain about their hair; I know I am. (Please don’t spread this around—oops, I forget, this is a newspaper . . .) I’ve read that one should never pull out gray hairs, for one gray hair will be replaced by ten. OK, folks, don’t panic. If you don’t have a full head of gray hair right now, then this old wives’ tale is probably a myth. But I wouldn’t suggest testing it!
Another scary old wives’ tale regarding hair claims that shaving your hair causes it to grow back darker, coarser, and faster. But sigh of relief, folks. It’s a myth, because if it were true, all men who shave would have dark, coarse beards.
Then there are the typical myths that I had believed, at least to some extent. For example, bats are blind, right? As the saying goes, “blind as a bat.” But, surprisingly, bats actually have excellent eyesight! Or, you can get the flu from the flu shot (which I think once happened to me . . .). Coffee will make you sober (actually, coffee doesn’t change how much alcohol is in the body, it just makes you a wide-awake drunk). Some of the ones I believed actually do have some truth: eating turkey causes drowsiness; drinking warm milk can help you fall asleep.
The concept of old wives’ tales has been around for centuries. Whether or not old wives’ tales are myths, they’ve lasted so long that many have become long-held beliefs. The saying—which, I hope it is obvious is a myth—that eating ice cream will lead to nightmares will surely cease all yummy ice-cream-eating by your kids, but what fun is that? Use the old wives’ tales if you must, but use them wisely! I’ve left out the ones that would really give you good old-fashioned nightmares—I don’t want my articles to scare you silly. Now go and have some scrumptious ice cream. But be sure to lock the windows and doors tonight. Hey, you just never know! v
Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist and can be reached at

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Posted by on December 4, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.