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Too much health information — it's enough to make you sick

The abundance of medical advice coming at us can make your head spin. Now, what pill to take for that?

April 07, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Recent research suggests a daily dose of aspirin might reduce the risk of certain types of cancer -- but it also might give you bleeding ulcers.
Recent research suggests a daily dose of aspirin might reduce the risk of… (Tim Boyle / Getty Images )

It's a ritual that's beginning to make me feel less responsibly health conscious and more reliably heading toward old age.

Every Sunday, I count out seven days' worth of a dozen different pills and load them into the daily compartments in my plastic medication bin.

That's "geezer status," my daughter jokes, as I slip an extra set inside my purse, in case my memory-enhancing gingko biloba fails and I forget to swallow them before I leave home.

My paisley-print pill case is fashionable, but it's bursting at the seams these days. And every week I feel pressured to add some new pill to my health-preservation routine.

Last week it was lutein, pushed by a health store clerk who saw me straining to read the tiny print on the label of a jar of the dietary supplement CoQ10. "At our age, the eyes need help," she said.

Our age? I thought, as the elderly woman shuffled over with a brochure about macular degeneration.

I left with two additions to a vitamin case that's now more crowded than my makeup bag.

::

Maybe it's just baby boomer angst, but I'm feeling overwhelmed by medical advice.

Aspirin is the latest wonder drug (again), if you believe the recent reports. Long known for lowering the risk of heart attacks, research now suggests that one tablet every day might also help prevent or slow the spread of certain kinds of cancer.

But it also might give you bleeding ulcers.

The devil is in the details, which are hard to decipher if, like me, you have a tortured relationship with mathematics.

Understanding the risk-benefit stuff is what complicates our pursuit of optimum health. The choices, and the consequences, are confounding at best.

"It's a reasonable thing to be confused," Dr. Michael Karp assured me. He's an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. I called on him for help in sorting things out.

Patients come in all the time, he said, with questions about things they've heard on the news or read on the Internet. "There is so much information, some of it conflicting.... That's why it feels like it makes your head spin."

Authoritative-sounding statistics don't always mean what they seem, he said.

He had to interpret for a patient a recent study that linked an increased risk of cancer with a specific drug: There were two study groups with 4,000 patients. Two got cancer in the control group — those not on the medication — compared to three in the group taking the medication.

"That's a 50% higher risk — a scary thing, until you look at the numbers," Karp said. "The overall risk was very small." In his patient's case, the benefits of the medication made it worth the risk.

That's the sort of calculation best made case to case, with patient-physician collaboration, he said.

I raised the aspirin issue with my doctor and we went over the trade-offs. I'm inclined to skip it for now — if I can only stop obsessing about stats like these, from a report on NPR: After five years, the risk of dying of cancer was reduced by 37% among those taking aspirin.

I'm relying instead on a study that I like better, on an anti-aging powerhouse that may protect against heart disease, cancer, diabetes and mind-robbing neurodegenerative disorders.

The source of these protective effects? Red wine.

::

If information is power, we're on a roll.

Technology has given us new ways to track medical research and share personal testimonies. Pharmaceutical companies have given us new options, with their seductive commercial campaigns.

Sometimes all that confuses as much as it comforts — especially to our masters-of-the-universe cohort, trying to hold aging at bay.

We are seizing the reins, with our vitamin stockpiles and fitness regimens. Baby boomers have made sports injuries second only to the common cold as a primary reason for doctor visits.

But we are also forced to confront the inviolable power of ancestry. Scientific advances in gene-mapping can now pinpoint inherited deficiencies and even predict who will develop chronic diseases, such asAlzheimer'sand diabetes.

There's a touch pad now, instead of paper forms, to record your family's history. I came face to face with mine last week, as I sat with my daughter in her doctor's office, answering questions about our extended family's checkered genetic legacy.

She had to touch "yes" for almost every ailment, it seemed: cancer, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, stroke, heart disease....

If the process had gone on much longer, I would have had to answer "yes" to depression and anxiety.

The illnesses dotting our family tree gave my daughter a skewed look at mortality. I can imagine her thinking, "We might as well start divvying up Mom's things."

But I know it's not as bleak as it seems. Too much information can actually be an unhealthful thing.

Doctors, en masse, said as much this week, when nine national groups of medical specialists urged their members to stop conducting so many high-tech tests.

They recommended against the routine use of 45 common procedures and tests. Many are high-cost and high-profit, and used unnecessarily, they said. Some can lead to unwarranted treatments that do patients more harm than good.

The guidelines would eliminate procedures we've come to consider a birthright — EKGs at our physicals, an MRI for routine back pain, antibiotics for sinus infections.

That's liable to spur some patient complaints. We want guarantees, whatever the cost. I'm trying to think of this as a reprieve from information overload. But I do want that EKG....

Maybe patients should make a deal with the medical community: We won't ask for so many tests if you stop spinning out so many studies.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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