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1 year ago
Medical Myth Busters

By now you know that Bill Gates won't be sending you a $1,000 check for forwarding an e-mail. Still, thanks to the Web, urban legends, health rumors, and medical myths make the rounds faster than Tom on MySpace. And despite reliable medical sites like WebMD, wrong-headed — and possibly dangerous — health information too often circulates as fact. "There seems to be a kind of industry out there producing these scary stories," says Elizabeth Whelan, Sc.D., president of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City. "Then they take hold and have a life of their own." Before you toss your deodorant or have your silver fillings yanked, see if you're really up to date on what's medical myth and what's reality.

The Myth: Antiperspirants trigger breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

The Back Story Aluminum in deodorant causes shadows on mammogram film, so women are instructed not to wear it for the test. Plus, if you nick your pit with a razor and antiperspirant gets in the cut, you may develop a lymph node infection. Since an enlarged node can indicate breast cancer, your doctor will likely order a biopsy to rule it out. It takes only a tad of hysteria to make the leap that deodorant causes the disease. Add to that early studies that discovered aluminum in the autopsied brains of Alzheimer's patients, leading some scientists to theorize that antiperspirants could be partially responsible.

The Truth There's never been any conclusive proof of a connection between deodorant and breast cancer, says Jennifer Wu, M.D., an ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. After comparing the antiperspirant habits of 1,600 women with and without breast cancer, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no relationship. And the link to Alzheimer's is equally suspect: The aluminum reported in the research that started the buzz was most likely a contaminant from the mixture used to prepare brain tissue for slides. A subsequent study employed a different method to examine Alzheimer's brain cells and found no sign of aluminum in 105 samples.

The Myth: Once you kill brain cells, they're gone forever.

The Back Story Until about 10 years ago, this was the scientific consensus. Plus, those fried egg commercials about your brain on drugs had a lasting impact.

The Truth Good news: The partying you did in college doesn't have to doom you to senility. Groundbreaking research in recent years has determined that we do grow new brain cells — maybe one for every 100 lost, which might not seem like much but is dramatic given the millions we kill. And 30 minutes of exercise, including table tennis and dancing, is fertilizer for the brain. These activities stimulate the cerebellum — the part of the brain responsible for coordination and some thought processes — which can help you stay sharp, says psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Making a Good Brain Great. Brainy pursuits like Sudoku may also help new cells sprout. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine followed 479 people, ages 75 to 85, for 5 years and found that mentally engaging leisure activities, such as reading and playing musical instruments or board games, were associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

The Myth: You should have silver fillings removed.

The Back Story Last year, several consumer activist organizations asked the FDA to consider banning amalgam (silver-colored) fillings. Their concern reflects the paranoia that resulted from a 1990 60 Minutes report questioning the safety of silver amalgam, a mix of mercury, copper, silver, and tin. Since there's plenty of proof that exposure to pure mercury is toxic to the nervous system, Morley Safer's segment panicked legions of the cavity-cursed. People became convinced the mercury in their mouths caused everything from migraines to multiple sclerosis, so dentists removed silver fillings and replaced them with a tooth-colored composite made from powdered glass or quartz and resin.

The Truth A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no differences in memory, attention, or other neurological functions when they compared kids with silver fillings and those with tooth-colored fillings. Mercury bonds with the other metals to form a stable mixture, and studies show that the amount released by the amalgam is so small that it's measured in billionths of an ounce — it would take an estimated 500 fillings to affect your health. "There is no strong scientific data proving that silver fillings are unsafe," says Sheila Koh, D.D.S., a vice president at the American Dental Education Association. For now, the FDA's expert panel says further study is needed.

The Myth: Going on the Pill will cause weight gain.

The Back Story Women tend to start the Pill in their teens and stay on birth control for about 10 years. This happens to be a decade when many of us put on a few pounds as our bodies fill out and reach a set adult weight. In the past, the claim had some truth, because early versions of the Pill contained 50 micrograms of estrogen, nearly twice the amount in current choices. Estrogen boosts appetite and can make you retain water.

The Truth A recent review of 44 studies found no evidence that hormonal contraception provoked weight gain. The 20 to 30 micrograms of estrogen in today's lower-dose contraceptives may cause water retention at first, but the water weight disappears as your body adjusts to the hormone levels, Dr. Wu says.

The Myth: Cold weather causes colds and the flu.

The Back Story Calling colds "colds" doesn't help. Since we tend to get sick more often in the winter, weather was assumed to be the culprit.

The Truth We have piles of proof that colds (and flu) have no connection to Al Roker's morning report. In fact, a 1968 study in the New England Journal of Medicine remains unchallenged as the definitive debunker of the weather's effect on the common cold. The study showed that cool temperatures didn't increase the likelihood or severity of a cold. Subsequent research has shown the same results. "Colds and flu are spread by direct contact, period," says Janet O'Mahony, M.D., an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. To be infected, you must be directly coughed or sneezed on, or handle something with the virus on it and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. So we tend to get sick the most when people are crammed indoors — and in close contact with germs. Don't blame Al, just wash your hands.
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