The truth behind the headlines
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The truth behind the headlines

We're often bombarded with conflicting medical advice. Careful reading can help you sort the fact from the fiction.

Don't believe the hype

Turn on the news or pick up a paper and you can't help but be hit with a barrage of conflicting health information: One minute cell phones are safe, the next they're giving you brain cancer. One study says a glass of wine is heart-healthy, another warns it causes breast cancer. Confused? Small wonder. "Unfortunately, the media often jumps on controversial studies or biased research before it's been substantiated by the medical community," says Ted Gansler, M.D., medical editor for patient information at the American Cancer Society. To sort it all out, Ladies' Home Journal went to the country's top medical experts.

The cell-phone controversy

The claim: Cell phones cause brain cancer. One Swedish study published last year found a link between long-term use of the older analog cell phones and brain cancer; research in rats has shown a link between cell-phone radiation and potentially cancer-causing DNA damage.

The counterclaim: Cell phones are safe. The largest study to date, published last February in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, surveyed 420,000 cell-phone users from 1982 and 1995 and concluded there was no evidence of a brain-cancer link. Two smaller studies, published last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, came to similar conclusions.

Expert analysis: Cancer experts feel that cell phones are safe for short-term use--but note that more long-term research is needed. "Studies show that using cell phones for ten or fifteen years doesn't seem to increase brain-cancer risk, but we don't have any research that goes beyond that," says Gansler. He points out that the analog phones in the Swedish study emit much more radiation than today's digital ones. And as for laboratory studies, "Results are much different in a test tube or a rat than they are in humans," he adds.

But other experts are more cautious. "Brain tumors grow slowly and may not be detected for more than a decade," warns Henry Lai, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

The bottom line: Until 20- or 30-year studies are available to demonstrate cell-phone safety, take some precautions. Start with a hands-free headset, which may minimize exposure to radiation. Keep your phone away from your body when you're not using it. Joshua Muscat, Ph.D., of the American Health Foundation in Valhalla, New York, also recommends using the newer digital phones, which have less radiation than analog. Don't use it when signal strength is poor, since that means the phone has to work harder, causing it to emit more radiation. And keep your kids off cell phones, since researchers don't know how radiation affects a developing brain. As for devices that claim to protect against radiation, "There's no evidence that they work," says Muscat.

Carpal tunnel confusion

The claim: Computer overuse causes carpal tunnel syndrome, according to media reports and many doctors.

The counterclaim: Heavy computer use doesn't increase the risk, according to a study published last June.

Expert analysis: While most doctors agree that computer use can aggravate carpal tunnel syndrome, there's never been any evidence it's the cause, says Edward Anthony Rankin, M.D., chief of orthopedic surgery at Providence Hospital, in Washington, D.C. "Studies have always shown that the individuals most likely to get it are those who perform repetitive, forceful motions with their hands and wrists in industrial settings," adds Benn Smith, M.D., consultant in neurology at the Mayo Clinic, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and an author of the study. "But people assumed that all repetitive motions--like constant computer use or sewing--could cause the syndrome, too."

Still, computer use isn't exonerated completely, warns Rankin. Some people--especially women--may be more prone to the disorder because they have smaller wrist canals, making them more susceptible to tendon irritation. "For them, a regular activity like computer use could exacerbate the syndrome," he says.

The bottom line: Computer use may not directly cause carpal tunnel, but it pays to be careful nonetheless. Take frequent stretching breaks and keep your keyboard at elbow height to avoid wrist strain.

The low-carb craze

The claim: A low-carb diet is good for your health and helps you lose weight. This past February, the controversial high-protein, high-fat Atkins diet made headlines when a preliminary study revealed that more than 40 overweight men and women lost weight on it--and lowered their cholesterol in the process.

The counterclaim: Low-carb diets are ineffective and dangerous. A federal review of diet plans last January revealed that moderate fat and protein plans are the best way to permanently keep pounds off.

Expert analysis: Dieters most likely lost weight on the Atkins plan simply because they were consuming less food, says Wahida Karmally, R.D., director of nutrition at the Irving Center for Clinical Nutrition at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, in New York City.

"When you eat a diet high in fat, you feel fuller faster, which may result in eating fewer calories overall," she explains. "Plus, the Atkins study only looked at respondents in the short term--and that's important, because they may have since gained some of the weight back," she adds. "Diets like Atkins don't teach you long-term healthy eating strategies, so you may revert to your old bad habits when you go off of them."

The federal review, on the other hand, focused on hundreds of published long-term studies on obesity, weight loss and diet. In fact, low-carbohydrate diets--especially the high-fat, high-protein Atkins diet--can cause serious health trouble. First, a high protein intake could place a dangerous strain on the kidneys, says Karmally. Second, when a dieter severely limits carbohydrates, she goes into a state called ketosis: Chemical substances called ketones accumulate in the bloodstream, leading to fatigue, bad breath, nausea, constipation and, at worst, irregular heartbeat and dehydration. And a high-fat diet can increase risk of heart disease and cancer.

The bottom line: To lose weight and maintain good health, stick to a diet that is 50 to 60 percent carbs. Karmally recommends focusing on bran cereals, beans, whole grains, brown rice and fruits and vegetables. These foods are rich in fiber and anti-oxidants that are proven to help fight heart disease and cancer.

Making sense of medical news

The next time you hear about a new link to breast cancer, or that microwave radiation will make you glow in the dark, ask yourself these questions to help evaluate the truthfulness of the report:

What is the source? It's one thing if your local TV news or newspaper is quoting the results of a study and has a medical expert to comment. But be wary if the reporter briefly summarizes a study without actually explaining the report. "Often these are sound bites that gloss over the importance of the research," says Ted Gansler, M.D., medical editor for patient information at the American Cancer Society.

Is the research relevant? "If it doesn't include women who are around your age, the results may be irrelevant," says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., chief of the women's heart program at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.

Was the study done on animals or on humans? Results in rats or in a test tube can provide valuable insights, but "When the study is then done on humans, it may yield different results," says Gansler.

Did the study follow individuals over several years, or simply have them fill out a questionnaire? Questionnaire studies often aren't as reliable. "When someone is asked to remember what they ate or how often they exercised, they are prone to either over- or under-exaggeration," says John Whysner, M.D., chief of pathology and toxicology at the American Health Foundation, in Valhalla, New York.

How many participants were there? "A study of ten people doesn't really reveal much--the results could be due to chance," says Goldberg. "The more people involved, the better the chance the results are reliable."

Is this the only study like it? Once is not enough: "You can't figure anything out from one study," says Whysner. "You need several with similar results before conclusions can be drawn." --Hallie Levine

Hallie Levine writes frequently about health for LHJ.