Health information is everywhere these days. 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.
What happens when our brains become so inundated with health tips, tricks, trends, and Tweets that our relationship to health becomes...unhealthy?
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?
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.
Health is an ongoing collection of behaviors that lead to a healthy lifestyle, just as science is an ongoing discussion of experimental findings.
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.
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.
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.
Specific study results may be highlighted preferentially, arbitrarily, or because certain studies make better headlines than others.
Many people – 61% 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.
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.
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 (or worse), 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.
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.
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 (present company included) 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.
Intimately connected with the question of how to tell good health information from bad is 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.
People are not only conscious of health, they are consumed with it. It’s no longer good enough to just be well, Daniels says. We try to attain a state of 'perfect health.'
Some researchers, like Jessie Daniels, PhD, 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.
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.
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.
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 7%.
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 towards health, even in the face of an ever-expanding sea of information.
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 realize that the story is still developing.
The bottom line is that while it can seem trickier now to have a healthy attitude towards 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.