Personal Health Beliefs Are Largely Hit and Myth

By Phil Galewitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pop quiz: Which of the following is accurate?

-- A. Cellphones can cause cancer.

-- B. Low-tar cigarettes are less dangerous than regular cigarettes.

-- C. What you do as a young adult has little effect on your chance of getting cancer later in life.

If you chose any of the above, you're wrong -- but you're hardly alone. A study released last week by the American Cancer Society offered new evidence that many Americans subscribe to myths about health risks, often using them to rationalize their unhealthy behaviors.

And what you believe can hurt you, according to many medical organizations that are trying hard to counter the flawed thinking.

Of 957 survey respondents, 30 percent regarded cellphones as dangerous (although no peer-reviewed published studies support that claim); low-tar cigarettes were seen as safer by nearly 15 percent (although studies show the level of tar does not affect cancer risk); and nearly 25 percent believed young adults' actions didn't affect their chances of getting cancer later (even though early smoking, sunburn and sexual risk-taking all raise cancer risk later in life). What's more, a whopping two-thirds of us thought the risk of dying from cancer in the United States is increasing (although the death rate from cancer has been dropping by about 1 percent a year since 1991).

Men proved more likely to hold scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs than women, the study found, as did people with lower incomes and less education.

The findings, to be published in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Cancer, underscore the degree to which many Americans maintain beliefs about their health -- not just in the area of cancer risk -- that are either outdated, unproven or patently false, said study author Kevin Stein, director of quality of life research at the cancer group's behavioral research center. Stein called some of the results "disheartening."

Disease experts and spokesmen for such health advocacy groups as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, which try to counter myths on their Web sites, expressed little surprise at the findings. But the groups say that, in the age of the Internet, they face an uphill battle online, where myths masquerade as fact.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families in Washington, said she is barraged by e-mails containing health myths every week and thinks the Web gives many their staying power.

"The Internet can expose myths, but it can also perpetuate them," Zuckerman said. Among the faulty beliefs her organization has tried to counter are that antiperspirants can cause cancer (a belief held by 14 percent of the new study's respondents) and that underwire bras can do the same (a belief held by 6 percent). Studies have found no evidence for either notion.

"It's amazing what people believe," Zuckerman said.

Larry Norton, deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, worried that false beliefs about smoking risks -- such as the idea that low-tar cigarettes are safer -- may help promote smoking.

"There is so much misinformation out there on the Internet and elsewhere it's hard for the public to know what's true."

The American Heart Association, which has been battling myths about heart disease for decades, has in recent years been trying to get women to understand that heart disease -- not breast cancer -- is their biggest risk. Heart disease, which kills nearly 500,000 American women each year, is the biggest killer of both men and women in the United States.

"Many women think heart disease is a man's disease" and neglect their cardiovascular health, particularly in middle age, said Daniel Jones, president of the American Heart Association and dean of the school of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Another prevalent myth that Jones says he combats is the idea that high blood pressure is not a serious illness and that it is caused largely by stress. Hypertension, a leading contributor to heart attacks and strokes, is more often tied to genes and diet.

One reason health myths persist, Jones said, is that the science is incremental and constantly changing. Study findings often conflict with one another before evidence becomes conclusive. And when newer studies overturn widely held beliefs, he said, the results can get lost in the barrage of health information available on TV, in newspapers and, above all, online.

Larry Deeb, president of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, said health myths make his job harder as a Tallahassee physician. He called particularly harmful "the concept that having a 'touch of sugar,' or slightly elevated blood glucose, is not a big deal." Patients who harbor such beliefs, he said, risk losing the chance to control their illness before it leads to complications such as vision loss or kidney failure.

And they don't always get the advice they need from their physicians.

While some patients perpetuate the myth to avoid changing their eating habits, he said, some doctors perpetuate it so as not to scare their patients. ยท

Phil Galewitz is a health writer in Florida.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company