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Can Millions of Statistics Be Wrong?

Data* If information on maladies is to be believed, every American has some medical woe. Or perhaps some health product maker has exaggerated.


Newspapers receive plenty of health information, and much of it is not to be trusted. That's because a great deal of the material is designed to promote products that treat various medical conditions. Often these pitches helpfully include estimates of how many people suffer from the condition the product treats.

Often these numbers smell funny.

Let's assume the U.S. Census Bureau estimates are correct, and stipulate that the population of Americans 16 and older (the group usually cited, or at least implied, in the marketing materials) is around 215 million.

Now consider that, if various marketers' claims are correct, 60 million of these people have symptoms of GERD (an uptown name for heartburn), 80 million of them "suffer" (their word) from hereditary hair loss, 44 million have either osteoporosis or low bone density and 28 million have migraines. These figures almost add up to the entire U.S. adult population. Which could mean that every U.S. adult has one of these four conditions. Every single one of us is either going bald or having heartburn, on the verge of breaking a bone or having a terrible headache.

Of course, it's also reasonable to assume that some individuals have multiple maladies--that some large percentage is suffering from hair loss and heartburn, say, and maybe fragile bones too. This would mean at least a few adults have none of those four conditions, something common sense would suggest.

The problem is, these calculations don't allow for the 76 million Americans who get food-borne illnesses every year, the 50 million sidelined by motion sickness, the 43 million who have foot problems (usually because of bad shoes), the 28 million who risk skin cancer by spending time in tanning booths or the 20 million who, often secretly, carry the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. These groups equal the size of the entire U.S. adult population too.

Again, let's assume that, instead of every U.S. adult having at least two of the nine conditions already mentioned, high users of disease have several. Perhaps members of the hair-loss-heartburn-fragile-bone group also spend time in tanning booths, carry the virus and maybe have sore feet. So now we're led to think that there is a large population of U.S. adults that's pretty much falling to pieces, the rest maybe having just one or two of these maladies.

And yet we've said nothing about the 43 million who have arthritis symptoms (but can remain undiagnosed), the 100 million Americans who suffer with mild dental irregularities (but, sadly, often don't think they need braces), the 20 million who have kidney or urinary tract diseases, another 20 million who have asthma, 18 million who have sleep apnea and 10 million who carry the TB virus. That's another full head count of U.S. adults. Add the 140 million who will suffer from chronic, recurring bad breath, and the 32 million with COPD (serious chronic breathing problems) and you've covered over three-quarters of the same folks again.

But let's not forget the 64 million who have allergies, 58 million with high blood pressure, 43 million who have social anxiety, 30 million who have chronic sinusitis, 15 million who suffer from TMJ (that misaligned jaw thing) and 15 million with diabetes. That covers the whole group again.

Just the 172 million with gum disease and the 64 million with herpes pave the whole field over one more time.

Add up all these figures--a mere trickle of the data flood that swamps our offices over a couple months--and you get enough diseases and conditions to guarantee every U.S. adult at least half a dozen of them.

The better guess is that at least some of the figures cited here are extremely generous extrapolations by drug and health product marketing people trying to lasso as many souls as they can into a customer group. Less diplomatically, they are intentional distortions designed to gain market share or boost a stock price.

To be fair, even if you cut some of those huge numbers in half to account for exaggeration, overly generous definitions of the condition and pure guesswork, the figures suggest Americans to be wheezy, achy, irritated, nauseated, itching, virulent, anxious, myopic folks with lousy teeth, bad breath, sick tummies and bum backs.

Which makes it a small miracle, I think, that only 18 million of us, if the figures can be trusted, suffer from depression.

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