By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The media and marketplace often report self-serving information on health and wellness. The media often latch onto dramatic findings, and pay little attention to the quality of the research, conflicting research, and limitations of the research. It is often “more heat than light.”

Pharmaceutical and weight loss companies, as well as the cosmetics industry, often selectively report data. For example, a LipitorĀ® advertisement says, “Lipitor reduces the risk of dying of a heart attack by 36%”. The asterisk explains, “That means in a large clinical study, 3% of patients taking a sugar pill or placebo had a heart attack compared to 2% of the patients taking Lipitor.” Note that the small difference between 2% and 3% (rounded off numbers) only applies to dying of a heart attack. Lipitor’s side effects may increase the risk of dying from other diseases.

Evidence-based researchers are finding that:

  1. Three major well-designed, peer-reviewed studies found that the heart attack and survival rates for cardiac bypass surgical patients was about the same as for patients receiving conservative treatment except when the patient is experiencing a cardiac crisis at the time. Needless to say, conservative treatment is far more comfortable and less expensive. Cardiac bypass surgeries have a 3-5% mortality rate.
  2. For asymptomatic women, annual mammograms starting at age 50 appear to do more harm than good. In a population of 1,000 women who received annual mammograms for ten years starting at age 50, one woman would avoid dying from breast cancer, about ten women would be needlessly treated (often with a mastectomy), a third would have at least one false alarm, and more than a hundred would be needlessly biopsied.
  3. Prostate cancer screening can lead to biopsies, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or surgery with risks that include impotency and urinary incontinence. While most men over 60 have some prostate cancer, most men do not experience symptoms at any age and eventually die from some other cause.
  4. Survival rate data can be misleading. For example, a man who is diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 60 and dies at 91 of prostate cancer would have had an impressive 30-year survival rate. If his prostate cancer was diagnosed at age 87 and he died at 91 he would fail the 5-year survival criteria. Testimonials from celebrities such as Bob Dole and Arnold Palmer can appear to make the case for early testing. However, statistics suggest they probably would have unsymptomatically outlived their prostate cancer.
  5. While emphasized by pharmaceutical companies and cardiologists, cholesterol is only one of many factors affecting cardiovascular health. Half of people who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels.
  6. The number of cases of diseases sometimes increases overnight because medical authorities redefine the criteria for the disease. For example, in 1997 the Joint Commission on High Blood Pressure (BP) decided that the systolic cutoff for treating BP pressure should be 140 instead of 160 and diastolic of 90 instead of 100. Overnight 13 million more Americans were deemed needing medication for BP pressure. Similar cutoff changes happened with diabetes, osteoporosis, and cholesterol.
  7. The clogged plumbing metaphor for arteriosclerosis has largely been replaced by chronic inflammation theories. Some of the preferred treatments for chronic inflammation include aspirin and omega 3 fatty acids (found in “oily” fish and fish oil supplements).
  8. Aspirin is the most cost-effective and one of the most effective treatments for cardiovascular disease, particularly for at-risk males. It appears to work by interfering with blood clotting and reducing inflammation. Research is increasingly finding aspirin reduces the risk of several forms of cancer. Aspirin does, however, increase the risk of internal bleeding.
  9. For decades physicians were taught that testosterone replacement therapy for men increases the risk of prostate cancer. Dr. Morgentaler found that the belief was based on a single case study in 1941 that had flawed conclusions. A large National Cancer Institute study in 2008 concluded that higher testosterone levels do not increase the risk of prostate cancer. Testosterone replacement in men does, however, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.


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