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When Health Fears Are Overblown

Experts discuss the fine line between appropriate health concerns and hyped-up fears.

Control: An Element in Dissipating Fear

One doctor pointed out that heart disease may be less feared because it is considered to be chronic and controllable by medication, stents, and the like. Breast cancer can also necessitate major surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, making it scarier.

In an example of a positive form of fear, AIDS has also become less scary since it became more controllable. Some people with the disease are now indulging in risky behaviors again.

Gruman maintains that taking steps to exert control of a condition also controls fear. But if people can control smoking, weight, and exercise -- if these are controllable variables -- then why don't people feel less fear?

Gruman says these factors may be controllable, but control is very difficult to achieve. Washing hands frequently during the day is the one thing public health officials say could mitigate the risk of infection with flu and other diseases. This is easy and doable and can ease fear. "But they don't say that," she says, "instead they say, 'There isn't enough vaccine.'"

Fear: A Poor Motivator

Many studies have been done suggesting that fear messages are not effective in changing behavior. One theory is that people not only do not want to feel fear, but they also want to feel secure and hopeful.

The commercial of the man who ignored medical advice and smiles in embarrassment as he rises and taps his cane to get across the room is a fear message.

And some people want the messages to be even scarier. "Younger people, especially," Gruman says, "say show the bloody lung, the person breathing through her throat. Some people are moved by fear, some are not."

Paul Jellinger, MD, is the former president of the American College of Endocrinology. He tells WebMD that even if people with diabetes are careful of their diet and sugar levels, they can still suffer some complications. "Eating right is only a piece of the puzzle," he says. On the flip side, he adds, people who are poorly controlled sometimes escape all complications.

"I think it is a bad tactic to bombard people with gruesome conclusions," Jellinger says. "There are ways to address the issue better. I say, 'There is recent evidence that reducing blood sugar leads to fewer complications.'"

Jellinger doesn't say, "Do you want to live to see your grandchildren?" He says, "I am sure you want to enjoy your children growing up."

For a younger person, he adds, he tells a "positive" tale of the great tools of control we have today, which was not always the case. "I talk about their fertility and pregnancy and how we have come so far. I tell them their life span will be very little reduced by having this disease, if they handle it."

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