Health Myths: Fact or Fiction?

With so many new studies, it has become exceedingly difficult to make informed decisions. This guide to common health myths will help.

Myth: You need to get a Pap smear and mammogram every year.

Fact: While the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that you see your gynecologist every year, it doesn’t recommend that you have a Pap smear during every visit.

Starting at age 21 and until you’re 30, you should be tested every two years unless you’re at high risk. If you’re 30 or older and have had three consecutive normal Pap tests, you can stretch out your screening to every three years. If you’re over 65, you can stop having them altogether.

Women who are at high risk, including those who have HIV or weakened immune systems, or who have been treated for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, should get screenings more often.

The question of whether women should get mammograms every year is slippery and is being hotly debated. Last year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed its previous recommendation of annual mammograms and suggested that women get the screening every two years instead. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 12.2 percent of women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives. Such startling statistics have led many doctors to follow the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendation of annual screenings. Please consult your personal physician to help you make a decision.

Myth: You don’t need to worry about cholesterol unless you’re overweight.

Fact: Being overweight certainly puts you at greater risk of having high cholesterol, but it’s not the only factor that can cause your artery-clogging cholesterol to rise. Diet, gender, age, physical activity, and genes affect your cholesterol levels, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. You can’t do anything about your gender, age, or family history, so help yourself by staying away from the potato chips and fried foods and getting some exercise.

You should start having your cholesterol checked at age 20 and, depending on your levels, every one to five years thereafter. Ideally, your total cholesterol should be below 200, and your LDL cholesterol less than 130—even lower if you have risk factors for heart disease.

“If your cholesterol is low at age 40 and you’re a runner who has a healthy diet, then you can afford to wait five years before getting your next test,” says Dr. Kimberly McMillin, a family medicine doctor in Garland, Texas. “But if not, you need to get it checked more frequently.”

Myth: You’ll catch a cold if you go outside in the cold weather.

Fact: Let’s face it: when your mom told you that going out in the cold will make you sick, she was probably just trying to keep you indoors. Viruses, not inclement weather, cause colds, says Dr. Dana Simpler, an internal medicine doctor in Baltimore, Maryland. Viruses tend to flourish in late fall to early spring, so many associate their coughing and sneezing with cooler temperatures, she says. Also, colder temperatures tend to keep people indoors, presenting more opportunity to share those lovely germs.

The best way to avoid a cold? Wash your hands frequently and keep away from people who are coughing and sneezing, if possible. Get plenty of rest, eat well, and exercise regularly.

Myth: There’s nothing you can do to prevent type 2 diabetes.

Fact: Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes. Among the most preventable types, it is directly related to obesity, lack of exercise, and our typical high-fat and high-sugar diet.

Studies show that people at high risk for type 2 diabetes can prevent or delay the onset of the disease by losing 5 to 7 percent of their body weight. Dr. Simpler says that she has seen many of her diabetic patients easily control or eliminate the disease by banning sugary drinks, eating healthy, losing weight, and exercising 30 to 60 minutes five days a week.

“Diabetes is a terrible disease that ravages just about every organ in the body—and by the time the person starts getting the heart attacks, strokes, nerve damage, kidney failure, and blindness, it is way too late,” says Dr. Simpler. “While treatment can help, it requires lots of medicines and procedures—and suffering. This is one disease where ‘an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure’!”

Myth: You don’t need immunizations unless youíre traveling outside the country.

Fact: Shots aren’t only for travelers and kids. Vaccines help prevent infectious diseases and save lives. In addition to any immunizations you may need when visiting a foreign country, you should consider the following that guard against diseases found close to home: tetanus-diphtheria (every 10 years); pneumonia (if you’re 65 or older); hepatitis A and B; measles-mumps-rubella (MMR:) and shingles (if you’re 60 or older). Once thought only to affect young children, pertussis (whooping cough) has come back with a vengeance. In response to the high levels of disease and death from pertussis in California in 2010, the state’s Department of Public Health recommends that all Californians make sure that they are immunized against pertussis, especially if they are in contact with infants.

Whether flu shots are necessary or not is a topic of hot debate. Dr. McMillin recommends that everyone get the shot, “unless you want to take off work for a week with the flu.” You canít lose weight that you gained during menopause.

You can’t beat the effects of time. Your metabolism tends to slow with age. Menopause brings changes in women’s hormones, which can add further difficulty to weight control. When you enter perimenopause and estrogen from the ovaries declines, your body starts to store more fat. Fat cells provide another source of estrogen, particularly after menopause.

But this isn’t a losing battle of the bulge. As with any weight management plan, incorporating a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise into your lifestyle will go a long way. Start by eating lots of vegetables, some fruit, protein foods (lean meat, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs), whole unprocessed grains, and healthy natural oils, says Dr. Heather Tick, clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Eating five small meals a day will help curb your hunger pangs and ensure that your blood sugar does not drop. Exercise not only burns extra calories, but also raises your metabolic rate for hours afterward.

Interval training is the best form of exercise to do this.

Myth: Your body requires less sleep as you age.

Facts: According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night, no matter what age. Studies have shown that people who do not get enough sleep have an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents; a greater likelihood of obesity; a higher risk of diabetes and heart problems; an increased risk for psychiatric conditions, including depression and substance abuse; and a decreased ability to pay attention, react to signals, or remember new information.

If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, you might consider the following tips from the National Sleep Foundation.

• Establish consistent sleep and wake schedules, even on weekends.

• Follow a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, such as soaking in a hot bath or listening to soothing music—begin an hour or more before the time you expect to fall asleep.

• Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool.

• Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.

• Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex (avoid watching TV, using a computer, or reading in bed).

• Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.

• Exercise regularly during the day or at least a few hours before bedtime.

• Avoid caffeine and alcohol products close to bedtime, and give up smoking.

Myth: Only women with a family history get breast cancer.

Fact: Having an immediate family member with a history of breast cancer does increase your risk of breast cancer, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Women who carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation are five times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not have such a mutation, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, resulting directly from gene defects inherited from a parent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Even if you don’t have a history of breast cancer in your family, you’re not safe from the disease. As you age, your chances of getting breast cancer increase. Rates of breast cancer are low in women under age 40, but begin to increase after age 40 and are highest in women over age 70. In the United States, 95 percent of the women diagnosed with breast cancer are age 40 or older.

Myth: You should stretch before you work out.

Fact: In a recent study of 3,000 runners, U.S. Track and Field found that there is no difference in the risk of injury for those who stretched before running and those who did not. In another study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, researchers discovered that distance runners who stretched before running were not able to run as far.

Static stretching, where you hold a stretch for a period of time, can actually make your muscles tighter, researchers suggested, as your body reacts to your manual attempts to lengthen them. San Francisco–based running coach Samuel Harvell prefers dynamic stretching, where you increase your joints’ range of motion via constant movement. He recommends that you do a short warm-up and then some dynamic stretches before moving on to your main workout.

“This allows you to work on range of motion while continuing to warm up the body,” says Harvell.

Myth: The longer the workout, the better.

Fact: Doing shorter, higher intensity workouts—often called interval training—is an effective way to build endurance and increase fitness. Performing bursts of hard exercise not only improves cardiovascular fitness, but also increases the body’s ability to burn fat, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Improved fat burning means that endurance athletes can go farther before tapping into carbohydrate stores. Interval training also helps prevent the injuries often associated with repetitive endurance exercise and allows you to increase your training intensity without overtraining or burnout. DW

Sherri Eng is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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