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Don’t be so quick to self-diagnose or panic
over those health headlines

Consider the following (with a grain or two of salt):

  • Coffee is “possibly carcinogenic to the human urinary bladder.”
  • Very hot drinks can boost cancer risk.
  • Exercise can offset your cancer risk from alcohol consumption.

We see these kinds of headlines all the time – one study or another is published and reported in the media with sensationalist headlines crafted to make you “click here to read more.”

It’s the double-edged sword of living in the 24-hour news cycle, where many media outlets no longer have the resources to dig deep and tell the full story. And let’s face it, even if they did, most of us are too overwhelmed by our social media channels and advice from friends and family to pay attention.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s also become popular to try and self-diagnose ourselves – an often risky venture down the rabbit hole that can have you freaking out over a simple allergic rash, thinking it’s the first sign of flesh eating disease. “Symptom search” tools are all over the Internet, even from respected healthcare names.

Taken together, it’s no wonder that so many of us are confused about health, nutrition, and what supplements you should take, if any.

Considering that most people are not health professionals, this should come as no surprise. The more information we have at our fingertips, the more important it is to rely on the counsel of qualified health and fitness professionals to make sense of it all. Since it’s foolish to expect any one person to know everything, you need a team of people with the knowledge and advice you can trust – from your family Doctor and your Chiropractor, to folks like Nutritionists, Physiotherapists, and Personal Trainers.

And you must also view those health headlines with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Here are some points to consider.

Not all studies are created equal

Many of these studies are “case control studies.” Instead of actually studying test subjects, these studies compare the risk factors of people with a certain disease (the cases) with those without the disease (the control).

But these studies are often inherently biased, delivering questionable conclusions. For example, a study that looks at the role of fruits and vegetables in preventing cancer can easily find itself more likely to select health-conscious people as its control group since health-conscious people tend to eat more fruits and vegetables anyway versus those in the case group. The study will fail to take into account how other aspects of their lifestyle, beyond just eating lots of fruits and vegetables, may also be contributing to reduced cancer risk.

What is the real risk?

Another factor to consider is the real impact when a study concludes that a certain habit, activity, food, or supplement can influence your risk for developing a certain disease or condition.

The study may conclude that This Thing will increase your risk of That Thing by a factor of five, 10 or even 20. But what does that really mean in practice? You have to look at the odds of developing That Thing. Maybe it’s still only one in 10,000, or a 1,000. To put that in perspective, your odds of dying in a car crash are one in 113, according to the U.S. National Safety Council, and one in 133 of dying from a fall.

By the same token, when certain foods or supplements are praised for reducing a risk factor, the amounts you would have to consume to see any measureable health benefit are sometimes absurdly high.

So when you hear or read that news headline intended to grab your attention with shock value, take time to look at the quality of the study behind it. If you still have concerns, talk to a qualified health professional whom you trust.

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