Myth #2: Your fate is already sealed
You often hear this kind of fatalistic remark from people whose parents died young of heart attacks or cancer: “What’s the point of jogging and eating broccoli if my lousy genes are going to kill me anyway?” Furthermore, each passing week seems to bring news that scientists have discovered yet another “disease gene.” If our health destinies are preprogrammed, does it really matter whether we take care of our bodies?
In short, yes. The so-called breast cancer gene, BRCA1, offers a good example. There’s no doubt the gene is powerful: Some 60 to 80 percent of women who have a mutation of this gene will develop breast cancer as compared to 13 percent of women who don’t have the mutation. But that means that as many as 40 percent of women who inherit a BRCA1 mutation never develop breast cancer, suggesting that perhaps their lifestyle choices give them some protection.
What’s more, scientists believe that the majority of cancer cases are not caused by inherited bad genes. Swedish researchers looked at the incidence of various cancers among nearly 45,000 sets of twins and concluded that “genetic factors make a minor contribution to susceptibility” to most forms of the disease. The evidence clearly shows, they stated, that the environment a person lives in has by far the greater influence on cancer risk.
The same scenario seems to hold true for other diseases that can rob you of years. Imagine a pie chart representing all the factors that influence how long you will live. Many studies suggest that the genes you inherited from your parents make up only about one-third of the pie, and maybe less. The other items in the pie include diet, physical activity level, and personal habits, such as tobacco use and alcohol consumption. In other words, you can’t change your DNA, but what makes up the rest of the pie is largely up to you.
Myth #3: Prescription drugs are guaranteed safe
About 10 percent of prescription drugs that hit the market are later discovered to cause serious side effects that didn’t turn up in clinical trials. With that in mind, you might think that pharmaceutical companies would want to keep close track of whether people become ill when they take new drugs the companies market. In fact, the FDA requires them to do just that. Yet drug companies fail to perform these follow-up studies 70 percent of the time, says Paul Brown, a consumer health advocate with the US Public Interest Research Group.
That’s why Merrill Goozner recommends that you change the channel or turn the page when you see an advertisement for a new drug. Goozner is director of the Integrity in Science project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (another consumer watchdog group) and author of The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs. “There is no place for those ads in the practice of medicine,” he says.
That doesn’t mean new drugs have no value. If there are currently no medications available to treat your condition, and there’s solid evidence that a new medication is effective without causing intolerable side effects, the new drug could offer some hope. However, if a heavily hyped new drug would merely replace a medication that’s currently working well for you, then why switch and expose yourself to unknown risk? If your doctor recommends doing so, ask why.
Myth #4: Hospitals are sterile houses of healing
It’s tempting – and certainly convenient – to believe that hospitals are squeaky clean and sterile. You’d like to think the floors, or at least other surfaces, are so immaculate you could eat off them. But it’s simply not the case.
Despite many hospitals’ diligent attempts to keep hospital-acquired infections under control, your room and even your doctor probably carry nasty drug-resistant germs that could kill you, or at least make you very sick and keep you in the hospital longer – exposing you to even more germs. Microbes such as bacteria that cause staph infections lurk on bed rails, bedside tables, IV poles, and various pieces of equipment that touch you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people develop infections while staying in, or immediately following discharge from, U.S. hospitals each year. Nearly 100,000 die.
Human error is partly to blame. For instance, doctors all too often neglect to take the simple step of washing their hands between patients, and most don’t disinfect the stethoscope that recently touched another patient’s chest.
Germs aren’t the only deadly dangers. We’ve already mentioned the disturbing problem of medical errors, which are common enough to be the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. Among the most common blunders that occur in hospitals are mistakes in prescribing and administering medications. For many in-patients, receiving the wrong drug or an incorrect dose is as much a part of the hospital experience as bad food. According to “Preventing Medication Errors,” a recent report by the Institute of Medicine, the typical hospital patient either gets the wrong medicine, receives the incorrect dose, or fails to receive a needed medication at least once per day.