Column: Health disinformation

In August, having just retired, I moved into a senior-living residence in Northfield, Minn. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that health, good and bad, is a major topic of conversation at a place like this. It was surprising, though, to hear so many people stating as incontestable facts about health and medicine beliefs that were at best ill-supported opinions and at worst incontestably false.

One resident confidently assured us that replacing ordinary salt with sea salt would not only prevent the ill effects of excessive salt in the diet, but actually reverse them.

I should have thought to ask, does that mean that drinking sea water instead of fresh would be good for one’s health? But never mind; she’ll say it again another day and I’ll ask her then.

Another resident offered her contribution to children’s health, a little jingle she taught her own children.

“The more white bread, the sooner dead,” she said. “They remembered that.”

I’ll bet they did.

An article in the Sept. 16 New York Times Magazine offers a whisper of explanation for why different people hold conflicting views about what’s good for your health; at different times, the medical establishment does too.

In “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” Gary Taubes explains why the answer is often “No.”

His marquee example is hormone replacement therapy, prescribed not merely to alleviate the symptoms of menopause, but for long-term use as a way to decrease the risks of heart disease and osteoporosis. A report released in 1985 by the long-running and eminently respectable Nurses’ Health Study said that women in the study who were taking estrogen had only a third as many heart attacks as those who had never taken it.

That was good enough reason for many doctors, including mine, to prescribe it even for women who didn’t have symptoms associated with menopause.

But the nurses’ health study was an observational study, that is, one that enrolls thousands of people and surveys and measures them regularly for information about anything anyone can think of that might be relevant to their health. If something possibly significant pops out of the data, such as a two-thirds reduction in heart attacks, then other researchers go and set up clinical trials, with two groups of people, one of which gets the treatment being tested and the other does not, and neither the patients nor their doctors know which group a patient is in.

Clinical trials take a long time to do, and though there were indications along the way that something was wrong, in 2002 a study by the Women’s Health Initiative concluded that hormone replacement therapy “constituted a potential health risk for all postmenopausal women. While it might protect them against osteoporosis and perhaps colorectal cancer, these benefits would be outweighed by increased risks of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer and perhaps even dementia,” Taubes says.

Hormone replacement therapy is not the only medical practice whose supposed benefits, as suggested by the nurses’ study, were not confirmed in clinical trials. Others are antioxidants, vitamins, low-dose aspirin and folic acid (see the article for more specific detail).

It’s not only the residents of Millstream Commons who believe things about their health that aren’t so. Sometimes their doctors do too.

Linda Seebach is an online columnist who blogs at www.lindaseebach.net

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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