Health-related books

Books for holiday gift ideas.
(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

The folks on your shopping list are likely an eclectic mix, with various interests and opinions and points of view. But all of them have some interest in some aspect of health -- if not their own, certainly a loved one’s. By no small coincidence, the Health staff is made up of a similar list of people.

So we’re here to help.

Without further ado, here’s a disparate list of some of our newly favorite books. Perhaps one or more will fit the bill. And, best of all, they can be bought at one shop or website, giving you more time to work out afterward. That’s what we do at the end of a long day of shopping.

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care
T.R. Reid
Penguin Press, $25.95

Even if you don’t keep up with the daily horse race of healthcare in this country -- senators and representatives and agencies and organizations and lobbyists weighing in and out and attacking and counterattacking and fortunes of individual elements rising and falling and taking a back seat and gaining new ground -- you can still grasp the basics of healthcare delivery beyond the U.S. political vacuum. And you’ll have T.R. Reid’s sore shoulder to thank for your intelligent water-cooler conversation and, perhaps, informed opinion.

From his prologue: “Contrary to conventional American wisdom, most developed countries manage health care without resorting to ‘socialized medicine.’ How do they do it? That’s what this book is about.”

The journalist and author traveled the globe in his dual quest to alleviate his shoulder pain and assess various types of medical systems. The resulting book explains in highly readable fashion how other countries manage to offer healthcare to their citizens -- and what those citizens can expect for their money.

The differences are considerable even among countries that try very hard to get it right. (His recount of the Ayurvedic approach in India is especially riveting.) And of note, “universal healthcare” is markedly different than a universal approach.

Whether you’re primed to agree with Reid’s bleak assessment of the U.S. healthcare system or not, his perspective -- both global and intimate -- makes for worthwhile and timely reading.

-- Tami Dennis

Also of note:

Don’t Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health
Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman
St. Martin’s Griffin,$13.95

Double-dipping with chips really can transfer bacteria into the dip, especially if it’s a runny dip, such as salsa. Mayonnaise-containing food such as potato salad is far less likely than unwashed fruits and vegetables -- or undercooked meat -- to make you sick at a summer picnic. And thirst is not a sign you’re already dehydrated.

Two physicians at the Indiana University School of Medicine have combed through medical research to present the evidence, not just anecdotes, behind our medical notions and misconceptions.

They also weigh in on today’s more controversial health-related topics. Among them: co-sleeping with infants, fluoridated water and the purported link between vaccines and autism.

-- Tami Dennis

Flow: The Cultural Study of Menstruation
Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
St. Martin’s Griffin, $27.99

Give this book to close friends or (female) relatives with a good sense of humor -- or an appreciation of irony.

The authors explore what they call “the ultimate taboo subject,” highlighting the influence of language, religion’s role in our attitudes, the biological transitions menstruation signifies, modern chemical changes, atypical blood flow and more.

Interspersed throughout are long-ago -- and not-so-long-ago -- advice and ads for menstruation-related pain relievers, deodorants, pads, belts and tampons galore. Some of these snapshots will amuse, and a few will appall. But together they offer a telling depiction of how our perceptions have evolved -- and how they haven’t.

-- Tami Dennis

The Little Book of Pandemics
Dr. Peter Moore
Harper Paperbacks, $14.95

Because nothing says “Happy holidays!” like the horrific details of a pandemic that doesn’t affect you, check out this little book. It predates the current swine flu pandemic, but some bookstores are now prominently offering it as great gift idea along the one-size-fits-all, stocking-stuffer line.

Divided into categories according to mode of transmission, each disease is described by origin, by symptoms and effects, and by treatments, with a bit of history thrown in.

Among the factual gems: Anthrax was first recorded in 1500 BC in Egypt and described as an outbreak of boils. Spongiform encephalopathies’ first symptom often appears to be garden-variety depression. Gonorrhea causes symptoms in 20% of women but 90% of men. Lassa fever is very infectious with a high likelihood of severe illness and death but its bio-weapon potential is practically nonexistent.

-- Tami Dennis

The Intellectual Devotional: Health
David S. Kidder, Noah P. Oppenheim & Bruce K. Young MD
Rodale Press, $24 (hardcover)

Your husband is a health know-it-all. Your friend enjoys a daily inspirational read but isn’t the religious sort. Your father-in-law is always on about his ailments and threatens to buttonhole your-friend-the-doctor for a little free advice. Your sister is a “House, M.D.” fanatic.

For these and about anyone else I can think of, “The Intellectual Devotional: Health” is a perfect gift.

Where else, on a rainy Thursday, can you learn what Rokitansky syndrome is -- and how a woman with a vagina 2 inches deep and no uterus could even reproduce? Or, the next day, what causes a yawn and why it’s contagious? Or about the English physician who, in 1628, first proposed that the heart is responsible for pumping blood through the body and how he got the opportunity to watch the beating heart of a living person more than three centuries before the first open-heart surgery?

The “Devotional” includes 365 of these health-related gems -- one for each day of the year.

Every day, your giftee can learn something to bring to her next cocktail party, or -- if you’re from the kind of family that talks about medical stuff while eating -- to your own dinner table.

In the case of your father-in-law, you might wish you’d never given it to him.

-- Melissa Healy

The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
Torkel Klingberg
Oxford University Press, $21.95

IBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind
Gary Small, M.D., and Gigi Vorgan
Collins Publishing, $24.95

Why did it take me hours to get to the task of recommending these books, and once I’d gotten down to it, to type in the details of their cost and publishers -- for which I had to keep checking back to their inside sleeves? Maybe because I’m overwhelmed by the ringing, the buzzing, the beeping and the sheer volume of information that comes my way every day.

I love it. I need it. But I often feel it’s taking a toll on my attention and memory.

Sound like someone on your gift list?

I like to think about how we think, and how our minds and memories work. I like to get under the hood and understand how the cylinders mesh and what happens when they get gummed up. These two books help explain -- in plain English -- how our minds and, especially, our memories work (or don’t work) under the assault of all those modern conveniences that are supposed to make us more efficient. Small is a UCLA professor and memory expert. Klingberg is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and founded CogMed, a brain-training program that focuses on improving working memory the way a Stairmaster improves your glutes and calf muscles.

In short, these guys know what they’re talking about, and write pretty well about it too. They also offer some pointers. Whether your giftee is one of those “highly effective people” types (definitely not me) or a person who just likes to think about thinking, either or both of these books would be a good bet.

-- Melissa Healy

Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System
Timothy A. Kelly
New York University Press (, $25.95

In this year of debate over healthcare reform, a former state mental health commissioner shares his 30 years of experience to describe the failings of mental health care in the United States and to advocate a major overhaul. Kelly is a former commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. His experience in the workings of state institutions and outpatient service-providers is eye-opening and lends support to his proposals for reform.

The book includes statistics to bolster his arguments, but the most influential material comes from his descriptions of real families trying to get help for desperately ill and misunderstood loved ones. He describes the problems of over-medication, poor insurance coverage and behind-the-scenes incompetence among staff in mental health facilities. The book also focuses on the much-discussed notion of parity in mental health treatment and the loopholes in parity laws that are barriers to treatment.

Kelly, currently director of the DePree Public Policy Institute, does not suggest that more money will fix the system. “The status quo is broken,” he writes. What is needed is funding to create a new system of outcome-oriented, community-based services that is both innovative and accountable. It’s a tall order, but Kelly makes a good case for giving it our best shot.

-- Shari Roan

Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err Is Human
Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan
Bloomsbury Press, $26

We’re so clever, we human beings -- so why do we think and do such stupid things? Dating the boy with the motorbike. Buying lottery tickets when we know we don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning. Getting goofily sucked in by ads that tell us we must have that pair of jeans, that perfume, that car. Fighting senseless wars.

“We easily spot and gleefully point out the fatuities of our opponents -- and wonder, in lonely midnight hours, whether we ourselves are any less absurd,” write this mother-and-son team in the book’s opening chapter. No, we are not -- and in this book the Kaplans tell us why, drawing on a melange of evidence: brain scans, experiments on undergraduate students, some real-life examples of accidents or near misses and what lay behind them.

Our brains, for all their complexity, are not logical computers, the authors explain. They are built to process information quickly, relying as much on gut as mind; to favor short-term gains over long-term ones; to divide the world into Us and Them; to savor prestige; to conform to the crowd, and attend to facts that support our underlying prejudices while giving short shrift to ones that don’t.

The Kaplans write: “Error is democratic and egalitarian: go scrutinize the opinions of even the best educated, and you will find them still largely a patchwork of hearsay, authority, prejudice, and self-accommodation; basic illogicalities prevail alike in the labs of MIT and in the stands at World Wrestling Entertainment.”

Some of the content feels unfresh: Me, I’ve reached the point where I never again want to be told that we eat to excess because our hunter-gatherer ancestors never faced today’s abundance of calories. And I could have wished for more dissection of specific cases of human idiocy. Still, this is an entertaining and edifying read.

-- Rosie Mestel

The Human Body Book: An Ilustrated Guide to Its Structure, Function and Disorders
Steve Parker
Dorling Kindersley, $40

Wonder what your innards look like? What diseases those innards could get? If someone you know is this way -- and a sucker, to boot, for gorgeous illustrations -- this book (which comes with an interactive DVD-ROM) could be the ticket. That vertical MRI slice through the brain on Page 13! The inflammatory response explained on Page 160 -- with a rendition of lung airway tissue that looks like a slice of red velvet cake!

Your loved ones may not have realized they could get wrapped up in the process of gas exchange between blood and body tissues, or how nerve cells send signals to other ones at synapses. With more than 200 diseases and disorders to discuss, this book will give them plenty to share with Grandma and Grandpa on the festive day.

-- Rosie Mestel