Health Information Is Everywhere: How to Navigate the News


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


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.


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.


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.

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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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