Tonsils. Oh, how we may come to miss them.
For much of the baby boomer set, losing them was a rite of childhood, with tonsils nipped out at the rate of a million or so procedures a year.
The tradeoff for a few miserable days in the hospital and the unrequited promise of unlimited post-operative ice cream (we were usually too nauseous to eat much) was supposed to be fewer sore throats and ear aches, trips to the doctor and missed days of school.
These days, ear, nose and throat specialists perform about half as many tonsillectomies as they did in the 1950s and '60s to correct a broader range of problems in both children and adults, from sleep apnea to a rare type of kidney infection.
Various studies and reviews over the past few decades have collectively concluded that while the procedure may help certain individuals, most of its advantages, as far as infections go, seem to last only a couple of years.
Medical societies ranging from the Infectious Disease Society of America to the American Academy of Pediatrics have either concluded that removing tonsils, with or without the adenoids, does little or no good for things like middle ear infections or should be considered only for extreme and frequent strep throat infections that can't be otherwise medicated.
More recently, the other tonsil shoe has been dropping in research that suggests some negative long-term side effects from losing the little organelles.
First, reports published in 2009 and again this year note that children who have their tonsils out, with or without adenoid removal, are at increased risk for becoming overweight.
The researchers in both studies speculate that kids freed from the constant assault of sore throats may simply be more inclined to eat, or that frequent illness may actually impede growth and that children go into a growth spurt after the surgery. They also note that parents may tend to overfeed children who suddenly are no longer picky eaters.
Earlier this year, Swedish researchers reported that having tonsils or the appendix removed before age 20 slightly increased patients' risk for suffering a heart attack at a young age -- by 44 percent for the tonsils and 33 percent for the appendix.
There was no apparent similar effect for losing the organs after that age, however.
The researchers, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, note that both organs are part of the lymphoid system that supports the body's immune response, although they're of modest importance.
They speculate that removing the organs may affect the immune system over the long term in a way that increases inflammatory damage to the heart and major arteries. But because the organs seem to have reduced function after adolescence, the study was limited to those who had surgery before age 20.
"Given the strong biological and epidemiological evidence linking inflammation with coronary heart disease, one might anticipate that surgical remove of the tonsils and appendix, with the consequent effects on immunity, might also have a long-term effect on heart disease," said Dr. Imre Janzsky, lead investigator, in a statement about the European Heart Journal report.
He also noted that because the study only looked at Swedes born between 1955 and 1970, the total number of heart attacks was small - only about 400 out of 7.5 million studied, but with a clear tilt toward those who had had appendectomies or tonsillectomies versus a control group.
Janzsky said it's likely that looking at people older than their 50s would show a similar or greater risk of heart disease from having had tonsils or appendix removed.
(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com)