Health Information Is Everywhere: How to Navigate the News

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Knowing more about our bodies and what makes them tick is critical to our well being, but there's a lot of false information to avoid

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Health information is everywhere. In general, this is a good thing, since the more knowledgeable we are about our health, the more power we have to change it. But the volume of information we get can pose some problems. The quality and usefulness of the health information we see every day runs the gamut, from the purest form -- findings from scientific studies -- to health "tips and tricks," whose merit is less clear.

There's no doubt that knowing more about our bodies and what makes them tick is critical to our well being. In fact, researchers are learning more and more that our health "fate" is much more than a matter of our genes: it is intricately tied to the choices we make every day.

So, if we're out to extend our lifespans by changing our lifestyles, where do we begin? How do we distinguish authentic health information that is applicable to our lives from information that is filtered, diluted, and yanked from its context? And what happens when our brains become so inundated with health tips, tricks, trends, and Tweets that our relationship to health becomes ... unhealthy?

Staying up-to-date with our health is actually a much simpler endeavor than it would seem, given all the information out there. If you know how to sift through the headlines and get down to what really matters, it's very possible to maintain a healthy attitude toward health.

BREAKING NEWS! SCIENCE ISN'T PERFECT; IT'S A PROCESS

The first place to look for the health of our bodies, whether we are diagnosed with a medical problem or just need advice for day-to-day health, is the developments in scientific research.

And in the vast majority of cases, science serves us well. Studies build on each other, replicating and refining each other. Scientific research is certainly the cornerstone of good health information, but it's important to remember that even science is not perfect, and occasionally we can expect to have to adjust what we think we know.

Expect Findings to Be Refined or Even Contradicted

The high-profile cases in which scientific studies have been overturned can be particularly problematic. They can cause a great deal of confusion about what to believe, or whom to believe. As Dr. Charles Platkin, a professor in Hunter College's School of Public Health says, somewhat ironically, "health is not a science." We need science to draw conclusions about health, but these conclusions may end up being revised -- or scrapped entirely.

A classic instance of this is last year's retraction of a study that supposedly found a link between autism and vaccines. The original study's results were found to be falsified, and it has been retracted. Many subsequent studies have found no association between vaccines and autism, but many people (and some very public figures) are still worried about giving vaccines to their children. They have been unwilling to let go of their lingering beliefs, and this has negatively affected the vaccination rates in some states.

More often though, the scientific community doesn't completely disavow health findings, it just discovers some exceptions or contradictions to them. When contradictory results cause controversy among the experts, the public becomes confused.

There have been some very public debates in recent years, with national organizations butting heads on the right recommendations to give to the public. For example, the ongoing debate about when to begin having mammograms or who should get which kind of screening for lung cancer have been the subjects of much discussion. These types of expert debates can understandably make people unsure about what information to believe.

Look for Solid Information as Much as Answers

Clearly, going to the science itself is critical in our understanding of health. Without scientific studies, we'd have only the advice of our friends and families, which as we know, isn't always the best. For better or for worse, scientific research has to guide our health decisions.

But here is the key: We must look at the trends over time, rather than at one specific result. Sure, sometimes new studies will overturn old studies, but this a validation of the scientific process, rather than a failing of it.

CUT THROUGH THE GLUT OF HEALTH INFORMATION

The same can be said for health: Just as no one study explains it all, there is no single behavior that will make you healthy, like cutting out fat or rejecting carbs.

Health is an ongoing collection of behaviors that lead to a healthy lifestyle, just as science is an ongoing discussion of experimental findings. That's why staying abreast of health information is key. But with so much information out there, it is easy to become frustrated, or obsessed. And neither response is helpful.

Many people -- 61 percent of Americans -- go online to look for answers to their health questions, thus becoming "e-patients," either to address particular symptoms, or to learn more about a new diagnosis. But the value of health information on the Internet can vary widely, depending on the source.

The Media as Middleman and Marketer

We rely on the media to transmit study results from the lab to the public. But according to Platkin, this "middleman" role can also pose problems, since the media are themselves an imperfect source. Specific study results may be highlighted preferentially, arbitrarily, or because certain studies make better headlines than others.

Unfortunately, says Platkin, "people believe that the newest study may represent the State of Science." A good example of this is when a recent study suggested that an antioxidant in cocoa was linked to certain metabolic changes in muscle activity: perhaps not surprisingly, headlines suggesting that chocolate could virtually take the place of exercise were splashed around the Internet.

Health marketing also has the tendency to link health with happily-ever-after, which can have unwanted consequences. According to Platkin, "the happy people running in the sunset on the healthy cereal packaging suggests that by attaining health you can live like a commercial." This idea is akin to the criticism of cigarette ads of the past, which gave the impression that if you smoke, you'll be as attractive and happy as the people in the ads.

The Perils of Social Media: Health as One-Liners

The fact is, we gravitate to these simple, happy stories. Especially when we are confused by conflicting findings and inspired by idealized images of perfect health, we may seek easy answers even though there are none.

Some of the problem is quantity, and the source of that quantity is often the Internet. When we're deluged with study results, health tips, and advice on an hourly basis, it's easy to feel lost. This is partly because a shower of information in tiny bits can obscure our basic knowledge about health, which is usually fairly accurate. For example, when lots of tempting new "quick fix" diet plans are promoted, it can be easy to forget that the tried-and-true method for weight loss is diet and exercise.

The health "one-liners" that social media often makes use of are meant to pique curiosity and spur inquiry (and a visit). But some simply use the message as a takeaway. The bits of health information, study findings, or health tips that fit into the space of a Tweet pose a problem because context is critical to science. Science is an in-depth discussion, and research studies build on one another over the long term. Taking a particular finding out of context can dilute -- or worse, distort -- the original message of the study.

Therefore, when it comes to health information, it's best to know more about less, so to speak, instead of less about more. If you do use social media to get your health information, as many do, always try to go back to the sources if you can.

Many reputable health resources use social media. Taking the time to read about the study, including how it was executed and what it found, is an important part of understanding exactly what the results were. Use Tweets to open the door to learning about what a research study actually entailed, but do your own digging and decide for yourself whether or not to apply the findings to your own life.

HEALTHISM: WHEN HEALTH BECOMES AN OBSESSION

Intimately connected with the question of how to tell good health information from bad is the issue of how we use it once we've found it. The health information boom has made people aware of their health much more than they were a few decades ago. That's a good thing -- most of the time. But there are problems associated with being overly concerned with the state of one's health.

Some researchers, like Dr. Jessie Daniels, also a professor at Hunter College's School of Public Health, have argued that our appetite for health has become exaggerated as a result of the technological revolution, Internet marketing, and the rash of TV doctor shows. People are not only conscious of health, they are consumed with it. It's no longer good enough to just be well, she says. We try to attain a state of "perfect health."

This "healthism" is not entirely new. In fact, the term was first coined over 30 years ago, by an economist who wrote about healthism as "elevating health to a super value." Others have since discussed it as a psychological phenomenon, drawing attention to the fact that as modern medicine becomes more sophisticated, we demand more of it -- but we may also complain more about the state of our everyday health. As we see that medicine can not only treat serious conditions but also relieve everyday aches and pain, make us look better, and even improve our moods, we tend to want all that it can offer.

Some Is Great; More Is Not (Necessarily) Better

Part of the explanation for our changing attitude toward health is that, according to Platkin, "in the past, we've tended to take health for granted, so public health and media campaigns try to get people not to take it for granted. But they oversell the benefits of a single healthy habit, and this can create a health-crazed mentality." We may end up thinking, "If some is great, then more is even better." This is not an uncommon sentiment in the age of consumerism, but when applied to health it leads to some unique problems.

The health information overload has helped foster people who push their pursuit of health unto the realm of the unhealthy. Platkin says that disorders like anorexia can easily begin because people become obsessed with eating only healthy foods, but they far overshoot what healthy eating really is.

Take the phenomenon called orthorexia, a disorder in which people become obsessed with eating only healthy foods and avoiding "unhealthy" foods at all costs. One study found the prevalence of the condition (which is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association) to be about seven percent.

Platkin says he's seen people who eat only what they believe is "healthy" food (think a line of soybeans on a celery stick, he says) to the point of deprivation.

Exercise addiction is another example of health consciousness gone awry. Exercise addicts, like drug addicts, often need more and more exercise to get the same "high" as they once did, and it comes to take over their lives. In one study, exercise addicts who were instructed by the researchers to miss one session of their training actually had withdrawal-like symptoms: "depressed mood, reduced vigor, and increased tension, anger, fatigue and confusion, as well as significantly elevated [resting heart rate]."

Such extreme examples represent just a small percentage of the population. As more people count calories, read ingredients, drink designer drinks, and sign up for the latest diet or workout, the risk of overdoing it, of losing the healthy forest for the trees, rises. None of these behaviors is a bad thing per se, but the extremes underline the importance maintaining a balanced attitude toward health, even in the face of an ever-expanding sea of information.

BACK TO BASICS

In reality, health is still simple. We know that the central tenets of health are healthy eating and staying active, and it's generally these big picture factors that we should live by. Eating lots of phytochemical-laden fruits and veggies, whole grains, a little low-fat dairy and lean meat, and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol are linked to better health and longevity. Engaging in fun activities of mild-to-moderate intensity -- even getting off the sofa to do housework or gardening can help -- is another key to staying in shape. Beyond this, the factors that keep us healthy are largely up for debate.

For people who are dealing with disease or chronic illness, the story is more complicated. In these cases, it is particularly important to look at the clinical trials themselves, and decide along with your doctor which treatment might be best for you.

Though in many ways the Internet has been a godsend in terms of disseminating information to a wide audience, it also brings with it health crazes and scares that develop when we don't read as fully as we should or fail to realize that the story is still developing.

The bottom line is that while it can seem trickier now to have a healthy attitude toward health than it was in the past, it's quite possible. Keeping it simple, looking at the research that has stood the test of time, and not getting sucked into the latest trends or rumors, will help ensure you are on your way to a healthy lifestyle.

Image: pedrosek/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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