Monday, April 15, 2013

Continuing Health Education

With the state of healthcare in such flux, the most important thing we can do is try to stay healthy.  Avoiding doctors and hospitals, except for routine check-ups is the best, and most economical, course of action.

Steps to accomplish this are outlined about once a week in news segments or on the Internet.  They are not really news and not secrets.  Because we’ve heard them so many times, most of us can easily recite them:  exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables and less fatty foods, get enough sleep, use alcohol in moderation, avoid tobacco, and fasten seatbelts.  There are a few more good pieces of advice about reducing stress and having a strong social network, but generally we know the answers.  Constant reminders won’t do the trick.  It takes discipline to break bad habits and adopt these.

Typically, though, when discipline is called for, it’s natural to look for shortcuts.  In doing this, Americans make assumptions and develop new habits that are not necessarily effective or economical.  Some of those habits and assumptions have also been in the news lately.  It’s time to question them.

In one example, a recent, very large study “was abruptly terminated when the researchers determined that vitamin E supplements offered no protection against prostate cancer. In fact, data from the study hinted that taking vitamin E might actually increase risk for the disease.”  According to this article, many men over 60 are taking high doses of vitamin E in hopes of fighting prostate cancer, but it may be having the opposite effect.

Another example involves the overuse of antibiotics.  Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study of antibiotic use by all Americans with findings published in New England Journal of Medicine.  They found a disturbingly high number of antibiotic prescriptions in recent years.  This overuse, along with a tendency to not follow the doctor’s instructions when they are properly prescribed, can lead to higher numbers of resistant bacteria, making treatment much more difficult.  People who call their doctor insisting on antibiotics for each cough or cold, which are usually caused by a virus and not a bacteria, do a disservice to the rest by helping to make some of these drugs less effective.

Finally, America’s love affair with bottled water continues.  Annual consumption of bottled water has doubled over the past 20 years to 21 gallons per person.  This does not include flavored or vitamin water.  While they buy water for supposed taste or health reasons, at least a couple of problems arise.  First, bottled water is sometimes not as pure as we think.  This article concludes:  “one cannot assume on faith, simply because one is buying water in a bottle, that the water is of any higher chemical quality than tap water.”  Second, while public water supplies add fluoride to promote dental health, only the bottled water that is drawn from another public water supply might contain any fluoride.  Many studies have approved this use of fluoride and this latest study from Australia confirms its effectiveness even for adults.  Many dentists have begun applying fluoride treatments during adult checkups since fewer adults are being exposed to it in their tap water.

These are three examples where people may be acting on erroneous assumptions, costing them more for little or even less benefit.  They show how important it is to question our assumptions and common advice and to keep current on the latest reliable, science-backed information.  The shortcuts and easy answers are variable and often unreliable.  What is constant is that original list of behaviors that requires some discipline and a little hard work but is known to lead to a healthier overall lifestyle.

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