Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Medical myths

Rational as I may be I sometimes engage in superstitious behaviors because of advice I have heard a long time ago and then stuck. For example, when I have a flu I usually overdose on C-vitamin. I believe that this piece of advice was made famous by Nobel prize winning scientist Linus Pauling who asserted that C-vitamin could cure the common cold. According to other sources that I trust more on this particular issue, such as Harriet Hall, also know as the "Skep Doc", a C-vitamin overdose will at best shorten the common cold for a day, and that is for people who do not eat a lot of C-vitamin in the first place (I am one of them why I may perhaps benefit somewhat), at worst a C-vitamin overdose can make you quite sick.

Two other behaviors which I sometimes engage in is drinking coca cola when my stomach is upset, and eating garlic when I have the common cold. Quick google searches did neither prove or disprove the efficiency of these two questionable treatments. Perhaps someone out there know something about it (in which case I hope you will share your knowledge).

What I really wanted to write about in this post is an article published in the British Medical Journal in which widespread myths, often reinforced by doctors were punctured. Some of these myths I believed in firmly until I saw the article. For example I have thought for a long time that reading in dim light is bad for your eyes. Now, becuase of this article, I know that there is no good evidence to back this claim. I had been wrong, but now I have changed my provisional world model to fit the new data (I stand corrected to put that more simply).

However, I am proud to say that I never bought into the myth that you only use 10% of your brain. Then again, I am a brain researcher so perhaps I cannot brag to much about this accomplishment. The idea, though popular in books such as Uri Geller's "Little Mind Power Book", is completely absurd. Would evolution allow 90% of our brain just sit there and do nothing, I think not. By the way, the claim can be easily disproved by sending a person into an FMRI and watch how the entire brain lights up which is an indication of energy expenditure (maybe with the exception of people like Uri Geller). Furthermore, in contrast to predictions of the "we only use 10% of our brain" hypothesis, removal of almost any part of the brain will result in clear symptoms,

The entire list of medical myths which are debunked in this nice article are as follows. Take a look at the article if you are not willing to take my word for it (there are nice references as well).

1. People should drink at least 2,5 litres of water per day
2. We only use 10% of our brains
3. Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
4. Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster and be coarser
5. Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
6. Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
7. Mobile phones cause electromagnetic interference in hospitals


Anonymous said...

i am not a scientist but i notice these medical myths are sometimes incorporated into standard practice unfortunately for the patient.
often in incurable conditions, ineffective and/or counterproductive treatments that can be painful, inconvenient, uncomfortable and soul destroying persist despite repeated research studies that evidence and prove treatment failure.
money, industry and employment can unfortunately be motives for practitioners to persist with failed treatments. it is easy to keep up the supply of false research when there is no cure or effective treatment and the field is open.
there can even be gain in obstructing change and progress in medical science.

Anonymous said...

I am a scientist and I read the scientific literature, each article, first by reading methodology and then results. Interpretation to me is anyone's domain. Several medical myths have recently grabbed headlines include: childhood vaccines cause autism; obesity is an epidemic which will lead to multiple health issues that impact future health spending; the American health system is in failure as evidenced by the growing number of uninsured people.
With 20% of the American public having major psychiatric disorders at any one time, it is not surprising that a significant number of those people unhappy with the health system, and in particular, wish to blame doctors for missing diagnosis, prescribing wrong treatments etc, are likely to have mental health issues themselves such as depression and anxiety disorders.
The uninsured are not a homogeneous group. Many are children who reap their parents woes. Others in this spectrum includes those with recent economic hardship, those with chronic under employment, mental health problems including substance abuse, those who chronically are poor decision makers (some of the same people in home foreclosure from the recent credit crunch). Any health insurance proposal will not be successful unless these groups are teased out from the whole, individually addressed, and held accountable for achieving specific behaviors. A recent study done in Montreal Canada, where there is universal health insurance, found that there was a group of chronic abusers of the emergency rooms, not taking their medications, and costly to the health care system. The proportionate number of people involved were similar to those in the USA.
The current blame game by theatrical people that vaccines cause childhood autism, as seen on Oprah's TV show, conflicts with the multiple studies done which disprove such a connection. It seems that media people are disproportionately ignorant, and willing to go before microphones and cameras exposing their deficiencies.
Politically correct news articles as well as congressional hearing broadcasts are on the fat and obesity epidemic bandwagon. These opinions are that 1/3 of USA population are overweight or obese. The data from Katherine Flegal in 2005 JAMA article, says: no, the people who live the longest are overweight. The people who are grade 1 obese live AS LONG AS those who are considered ideal body weight. Another study in Circulation Jan 2008 demonstrated that being physically fit, as measured by an exercise calibrated test (METs), was more important with regards to living a long life than any family history or medical diagnosis.
It appears that bashing McDonalds for their fast food is more sexy and gathers more sound bites, than paying attention to what the data actually says.
Alternative medicine proponents have persuaded our Federal Government to remove money from NIH projects, to look at alternative medicine practices. So far: Chiropractic activities are more costly, ineffective, and can do harm. Multiple herbal remedies are now shown to be useless or even detrimental. There has been NO alternative medicine/practice has been shown to be beneficial/ cost effective/ superior to what has become known as traditional Western Medicine. Just because it hasn't been found, doesn't mean it does not exist. Think of the NIH projects that the billions of dollars sunk into alternative medicine studies would have produced.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article; it makes me wonder about the potential of the human mind...

Postmodern Times has a new episode up at

In the Tipping Point, founder and president of MAPS, Rick Doblin,
goes over the history of the radical cultural and political changes that happened during the 60’s. What are the lessons we can learn from what happened then, and how do we apply it to our world today...