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When Health Fears Are Overblown

Experts discuss the fine line between appropriate health concerns and hyped-up fears.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Halloween isn't the only time monsters jump out of closets. Various health bogeymen jump out of the newspaper pages every day! Threats are raised but seldom discounted if new information emerges. Or fear is free form, vaguely touching everything we eat, or every breath and pill we take.

Some examples:

  • A 28-year-old says a third of the people in the U.S. have AIDS; he is married and faithful, but afraid of catching it. The real number is about 1.5 million.
  • Another 20-something stopped eating chicken because of bird flu, which as far as scientists know is not in the meat, or even in the U.S., for that matter.
  • More women fear breast cancer than heart disease, although heart disease kills more of them. Even among the cancers, lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer does.

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Are people afraid of the wrong things? Is fear even a good motivator to make lifestyle changes?

Health fears are not the "flee or fight" type, but more like dread and anxiety. People are thinking: "Will I become demented like Mom? My father died at my same age. I know so many women with breast cancer. I am so fat, I am dying any minute." That sort of thing.

Media: A Cause of Free-Form Fear?

Jessie Gruman, PhD, executive director and president of the Center for Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C., tells WebMD that the media plays a large role in skewing health fears.

"Public health in this country is so undervalued and underfunded," she says, "that it has had to link up with mass media. The problem is that mass media fly on news -- meaning information has to be tarted up to be used. This plants the seeds of fear instead of education."

Gruman says even the much-ballyhooed bird flu needs to be put in perspective. It's not here, and cases of person-to-person transmission are rare where it is present in poultry; if in the worst possible case, 1.5 million people died here, that means hundreds of millions did not die. "It would be a lot, but it would not wipe out the country," she says. "This does not mean we should not think about it, prepare, and be cautious. But it is an example of the problematical interaction of public health and news."

Gruman points out that when the link between smoking and lung cancer came out people stopped smoking in noticeable numbers. But now that has leveled out. Since the link between various diseases and obesity came out in the mid-1990s, there has been no downward change in weight in the nation. Quite the opposite.

Women went "nuts," as Gruman puts it, over the statistic that one in nine women will suffer from breast cancer. But they didn't know how to personalize that risk, including their own family background and lifestyle choices. "There was just a screen of hysteria. We make choices of what to fear."

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