Could What You Don't Know Kill You?

Open a newspaper or turn on the TV these days, and you will find someone dispensing advice about how to improve your health. Drink more water. Eat more veggies. Exercise to lose weight. And even: Get therapy.

But with so much information coming at us about how to stay well, it's tough to keep current -- and to separate fact from fiction. So we've devised a health know-how quiz that'll really work your mental muscles about some of the most common myths and misconceptions. Even if you don't get an A, you'll examine seven crucial facts that can help protect your health -- and may even save your life.

1. Which of the following statements about cancer is true?

a.Most women with a first-degree relative who's had breast cancer are practically guaranteed to get it too.

b.The lifestyle choices you make in your 20s and 30s play a significant role in your cancer risk.

c.The risk of dying from cancer in the United States is increasing.

Answer: b.

According to a survey by the American Cancer Society, a full quarter of those polled believed that early lifestyle choices have little impact on the chances of getting cancer later. Nothing could be further from the truth: More than two-thirds of all fatal cancers (including those with a heritable component) could have been prevented with lifestyle changes, such as eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; exercising; avoiding sunburn; maintaining a healthy weight; and most important, not smoking (smoking alone causes 30 percent of all cancer deaths).

2. In women, which is the most common sign of an impending heart attack, their No. 1 killer?

a.Overwhelming fatigue b.Tightness in the chest c.Pain radiating down the left arm

Answer: a.

In a survey, published in the journal Circulation, of 515 women ages 29-97 who had survived a heart attack, the No. 1 symptom, reported by 71 percent of those surveyed, was unusual fatigue. (Some women described their exhaustion as being so great, they couldn't make their bed without pausing to rest.) Other commonly reported symptoms were sleep disturbance (48 percent), shortness of breath (42 percent), indigestion (39 percent) and anxiety (35 percent). Only 30 percent said they experienced chest discomfort prior to their attack. And they described the actual attack in terms such as aching, tightness and pressure -- not pain. Perhaps even more interesting (and potentially lifesaving) is the finding that 95 percent of these women had symptoms more than a month before their attacks. In other, similar studies, women reported having symptoms an average of four to six months prior to suffering a heart attack.

Women who experience any suspicious symptoms need to be vigilant about seeking treatment, especially since doctors can and do miss the signs of female heart attack. "Women have to learn to describe their symptoms," says lead researcher Jean McSweeney, Ph.D., R.N., a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. "And they should not look at any one symptom in isolation -- they need to consider their other risk factors for heart disease, such as their personal history, whether they have hypertension, are diabetic or smoke."

Heart disease may not seem like something you need to worry much about now, but it should be -- this is the time to take healthful measures, from eating a diet low in saturated fat to exercising regularly, to reduce your risk. The No. 1 thing young women can do to prevent heart disease? Says McSweeney: Stop smoking.

3. What's the most underrated weight-loss advice?

a.Do more aerobic exercise to burn extra calories.

b.Ingest fewer calories.

c.Strength train to build muscle and increase your metabolism.

Answer: b.

There are many compelling reasons to strength train -- staving off bone loss, sculpting beautiful muscles, feeling more confident in your body -- but losing weight isn't one of them. While it's true that muscle will boost metabolism, the effect has been grossly exaggerated. An extra pound of muscle will raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR) by only 10 additional calories per day.

Also, be careful not to overestimate the contribution aerobic exercise can make to weight loss. You simply can't hit the treadmill long enough to outrun the effects of outsize portions. "Exercise isn't nearly as important for weight loss as portion control," says Gary Foster, Ph.D., clinical director and associate assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

If your goal is to lose weight, be sure to monitor your caloric intake first and foremost, in addition to maintaining an aerobic-exercise and strength-training program for overall health.

4. Which of the following statements about driving is false?

a.You have a much greater risk of being killed in a car accident driving in the country than you do in an urban area.

b.You're safest driving a sport utility vehicle (SUV) rather than a smaller automobile.

c.Safer cars tend to have higher resale values.

Answer: b.

Bigger may seem safer, but that's not the case with SUVs. Large and midsize imports (like the Toyota Avalon, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord) and minivans are among the vehicles with the safest track records for their drivers -- meaning they have some of the lowest fatality rates -- according to an analysis of traffic deaths by vehicle type and model prepared by Tom Wenzel, an energy analyst with Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division, and Marc Ross Ph.D., a physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, Wenzel and Ross' report states: "Most cars are safer than the average SUV, while pickup trucks are much less safe than all other types [of vehicles]." Even some subcompact imports have proven to be safer for drivers than SUVs. Drivers of the Volkswagen Jetta, for example, die at almost half the rate of drivers of the Ford Explorer or the GMC Jimmy.

While a hulking SUV could crumple a smaller car in a two-vehicle crash, SUVs come up short on what's called "active safety" -- meaning their size and trucklike handling offer less agility to avoid an accident. This difficulty in handling may be especially pronounced on country roads, says Ross, where the death rate for SUVs is four times higher than in urban areas. Also, SUVs have a higher rate of rollover, according to Ross. (There is no evidence that driver age or sex were responsible for SUVs and pickup trucks earning higher risk ratings than cars.)

Cautions Ross: "The safest cars are safer than SUVs, though there are a lot of unsafe cars too." A fairly reliable method of choosing a safe car, he says, is picking one that has a high resale value. "Price of the vehicle after five or six years is an amazingly good predictor of safety," says Ross.

5. What's the best way to prevent the spread of germs?

a.Wash your hands well with antibacterial soap.

b.Wash your hands well with plain soap and water.

c.Either of the above.

Answer: c.

A recent study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine looked at 238 households, half of them given anti-microbial soap and cleaning products and half given regular cleansers. The researchers found no difference in the symptoms, numbers or types of infection between the two groups.

The reason may be rather simple: Viruses cause most common infections, not bacteria. The study also noted that the degree of cleanliness was comparable between the groups; both anti-microbial and regular soaps were useful at reducing bacteria. (People at high risk for infectious diseases may want to opt for alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which kill the most germs.)

For the great majority of people, the most effective method for preventing the spread of germs is washing your hands for 10-20 seconds in warm water with soap -- any kind -- period.

6. Research suggests that the best way for most people to handle grieving in the days and weeks following a loss is to: bereavement counselingfrom a licensed therapist as soon as possible.

b.attend a bereavement group with others who have experienced a loss. to a friend or co-worker.

Answer: c.

Growing evidence suggests that bereavement counseling may not help someone who's just suffered the loss of a loved one, and can actually make grief-related symptoms worse, according to a Report on Bereavement and Grief Research by the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C.

In the days and months immediately following the trauma, the support of caring family, friends, neighbors and co-workers helped sufferers most, according to the report. Grief symptoms gradually subside over the ensuing six to 18 months; it's during this time when bereavement counseling may be most helpful if someone is still experiencing intense grief.

Likewise, most of those who have been exposed to a traumatic event tend to heal in time, without professional counseling. Six months after the events of 9/11, a survey of New Yorkers -- most of whom received no therapy -- found that only 1.5 percent suffered prolonged post-traumatic stress disorder (marked by the persistence of symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness and chronic insomnia a month or more after the event). People, experts are now finding, are more resilient than recently thought.

7. What is the best predictor of maintaining weight loss?


b.Having a low-stress job.

c.Being single.

Answer: a.

As noted in question 3, exercise alone isn't the most effective way to lose weight. But that doesn't mean it isn't an essential part of any weight-loss program. In fact, it's exactly what will help you safeguard all your efforts. "Exercise is the single best predictor of who keeps weight off," says Gary Foster.

Plus, there's more incentive to hitting the gym than fitting into your new smaller-size jeans. "Exercise helps you sleep better, reduces stress and improves fitness," Foster says. "More important, exercise improves lifespan."

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