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Excerpt: ‘Medical Myths That Can Kill You’

/ Source: TODAY

In her new book, “Medical Myths That Can Kill You — And the 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend, and Improve Your Life,” Snyderman helps readers separate fact from fiction when it comes to their medical concerns.

Here's an excerpt.

I don’t know about you, but I like it here. Sure, life can get complicated, hard to get through, and it’s not always fun, but I don’t want to be shown the door anytime soon. If there are ways I can enhance my health and longevity with healthy habits, if there are appropriate screening measures for my age group, if there are new lifesaving treatments I can access, then I want to know about them so that I can stay around and be kicking up my heels when I’m ninety.

But there is a challenge you and I face: to stay healthy and live longer we need to understand and evaluate “medical myths” and learn to act on the truths behind them.

Dictionaries define myths as widely held but mistaken beliefs, misconceptions, or misrepresentations of the truth, or exaggerated conceptions of people and institutions. Myths are like smokescreens. They prevent us from focusing clearly on the real issues and options, and most of the time we are unaware of the degree to which they shape our thoughts and guide our actions.

In “Medical Myths That Can Kill You — And the 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend, and Improve Your Life,” I’ll help you figure out what is true, what isn’t, and how to punch holes in myths you’ve come to believe.

Perhaps you have been told to not go outside without wearing a coat because you’ll catch pneumonia, or that you can catch a sexually transmitted disease from a toilet seat, or you’ll swallow your tongue if you have a seizure. Or, more seriously, perhaps you have an elderly relative who suffered a debilitating stroke, and at thirty-something you tell yourself, “Thank God, I’m young. That can’t happen to me.”

Myths like these have been passed down through the ages, told and retold to us by our parents and other family members. Some were born from ancient, observed associations between the forces of nature and bodily conditions (colds and flu are more common in cold weather, for example); others are cherry-picked from the Internet. My favorite Internet myth is the one claiming that swilling cold water after a meal promotes cancer. According to this myth, the cold beverage congeals any fat you’ve just eaten, slowing down your digestion. This “sludge” supposedly mixes with stomach acid, is dismantled, then absorbed by the intestines where, inexplicably, it triggers cancer.

Some myths are of our own making. Human nature demands an explanation, so when the timing seems right we assume the cause of an ailment is whatever preceded it. This probably explains why so many people with achy joints chalk up their pain to humidity, storms, and any change in atmospheric pressure. This medical myth arises from our tendency to look for patterns in random events. If it rains and our joints hurt, we attribute the pain to the weather, forgetting about all the times it rained and nothing ached.

Myths are often a fusion of common sense and half-truths, which makes the truth harder to suss out. Sure, it’s a good idea to bundle up before going out in the cold, but this has nothing to do with catching a cold or pneumonia, since a cold is caused by a virus and most pneumonia by bacteria. (And to answer the earlier myths: Anatomically, it’s impossible to swallow your tongue if you have a seizure, since it is fastened to the floor of your mouth. And you can’t catch a sexually transmitted disease from a toilet seat. The chances of this happening are zilch, since these diseases are spread mostly through sexual intercourse.) Some myths are more true than false. For instance, we’ve all heard that women’s menstrual cycles echo the cycles of the moon. Is this true or false? This one is mostly true, with the walls of the uterus waxing and waning in the same rhythm as that of the celestial body in the sky. We also know that women today, as well as those in ancient times, who live and work in close proximity cycle together. It happens in the home with mothers and daughters and in the workplace with co-workers. The fact of our bodily rhythms, whether hourly, monthly, or daily, has ushered in the exciting field of “chronotherapy” — the practice of giving a drug to a patient, according to the time of day, month, and year, as well as to phases of the sleep or menstrual cycles, in order to boost its power. Chronotherapy considers a person’s biological rhythms in determining the timing — and often the dosage — of a drug to maximize its benefits and minimize its side effects. It is being studied in many different diseases, including asthma, arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. Some myths are downright silly, others are quite harmful, with a decidedly dark side, but all are worth our examination. Why? Knowing the difference between the reality and the myth can make your life better and even save it; there’s just no doubt about it. When was the last time you heard, and maybe believed, that a heart attack can be survived by “coughing repeatedly and very vigorously” until the paramedics arrive? That you can’t exercise if you have diabetes? That just because something is natural means it’s safe and free of side effects? That medicines for cholesterol will damage your liver, so you shouldn’t take them? Or that only women need to be concerned about bone health? Fortunately, some medical myths just fade away when they are refuted with incontrovertible proof that shows us how to effectively treat or in some cases cure a disease. For example, when I was a resident we believed that if a kid got a fever it was a sign of a healthy immune system. The body was “cooking” the virus or the bacteria out of the body. We lived by the myth that it was better to let the fever just “run its course.” That was then. Today, an overwhelming body of medical evidence suggests that inflammatory processes like fevers, swelling, sunburn, lingering infections, or obvious inflammation-related conditions, such as asthma or rheumatoid arthritis, may be laying the groundwork for brutal illnesses never previously associated with inflammation — such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, even cancer. Although inflammation is the body’s attempt to heal, every time you have an inflammatory process going on, there is some wear and tear also occurring, not unlike having a little rusting happening inside your body. Over the long haul, that rust is harmful. So it just makes sense to manage the inflammation — which you can do not only with medicine but also through specific lifestyle changes involving exercise and diet that have been shown to keep your body as inflammation-free as possible. Medical myths — and there are thousands of them — are alive and well in our culture. In writing this book, I distilled medical mythology down to seven of the most common — and dangerous — myths regarding our health, medical care, and longevity. On the flip side of this, I’ll give you 101 medical truths — tips, advice, and the latest scoop on how to enhance your health and save your life. These are sprinkled throughout the text, and many of these came as questions my patients have brought to me for explanation during my more than thirty years as a doctor. I will also give you “news you can use” — vital medical information straight from the headlines that will help you chart and steer your own course to a healthier life. I will explain all these myths, truths, and news to you as I have to my patients and to the viewers I reach through my job as a television medical correspondent. In this book I promise that you’ll read vital medical information in a plain, practical, and straightforward manner. When you need things simplified, or when you’re inundated with too much information, this book can serve as your translation guide to the now-complicated world of medicine, and I’ll be your interpreter. You’ll also get an insider’s view of how doctors think and talk, so you can understand our language and what it means to you. Knowing this information is one vital way to keep yourself on a healthy course — for a lifetime. Two of our greatest enemies in the battle against life-threatening diseases are ignorance and the personal beliefs we bring into the doctor’s office. Are there myths you believe and hold dear? Are there old wives’ tales you trust? Being willing to shift your thinking and embrace new ideas may not completely eradicate your disease risk, but they may be the first steps toward making changes in your life that will. This book will give you the medical information you need to help you make informed decisions about how to:

  • Get connected to the process of your own health care (yes, there is a process) — what tests, screenings, and vaccinations you need to stay healthy — and make health decisions that will benefit you most.
  • Demand respect and appropriate treatment from a health-care system that isn’t always fair.
  • Prevent and treat the three leading causes of death in men and women — heart disease, cancer, and stroke — through awareness, self-care, prevention, and treatment.
  • Learn to reverse controllable risk factors and potentially add seven years of healthy living to your life.
  • Discover how a healthy mind influences a healthy body, so that you can stay well, remain active, and get the most out of your life.

Understanding medical myths clears the way to the truth and helps you see what you need to do for yourself to live a healthier, happier, and more fulfilled life. Along the way, you’ll discover there are plenty of health issues over which you have a lot more control than you think. The more you know, the more prepared you are, and the better your underlying health — the better your chances of surviving any medical challenge thrown your way. This book isn’t a big essay or opinion piece on medical myths — on every page, there’s advice and a plan of action to help you get the most out of the life you are living. It will help you treat your body as a loving friend, with enough information to help you change the habits that have plagued you up till now and correct any misinformation that inadvertently may have kept you from living up to your full health potential. However you choose to use the information in this book, my intention is that you use it as an encouraging and reassuring reminder of what’s important to our health — and what’s not. It is my hope that what I have to say brings renewed health and energy to your life, extends it, and possibly even saves it.

Excerpted from “Medical Myths That Can Kill You” by Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of