Your Health Checkup: Snake Oil Charmers: Whom Should I Believe?

Medical misinformation can be a major public health threat. Where should you go to find credible health information?

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ books, Ari’s Spoon, a new novel, as well as Bear’s Promise and Damn the Naysayers, A Doctor’s Memoir. Check out his website at dougzipes.com.

 

Wikipedia defines snake oil as “a term used to describe deceptive marketinghealth care fraud, or a scam. Similarly, “snake oil salesman” is a common expression used to describe someone who sells, promotes, or is a general proponent of some valueless or fraudulent cure, remedy, or solution.” A more modern version might be, “Tell a lie, tell it often enough, and people will believe it.”

Many over-the-counter remedies sold under various brand names list cure-alls for a wide variety of illnesses that are unsupported by any credible data. They are advertised so often that their claims become believed as crowd-endorsed facts when actually they fit the snake oil category hawked by snake oil salesmen.

Because such remedies often bypass FDA approval, they raise questions of where to find credible sources of information in the present world of misinformation and deception, and whom to believe. Such medical misinformation can be a major public health threat. One of the goals of this column is to present verifiable medical facts, advice, and opinions.

Many years ago, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the American Heart Association (AHA). The experience taught me firsthand the humanitarian ideals of this outstanding organization, as well as the high bar it maintains for accuracy and integrity to support its statements.

There aren’t always totally correct answers to every medical issue, but some answers are more right than others, based on the present state of knowledge; some answers are clearly wrong and should not be accepted. In contrast to snake oil salesmen, when the AHA speaks, people listen — or should.

They have “spoken” most recently about heart health, pointing out in Circulation, their lead clinical journal, that four out of five Americans have low to moderate cardiovascular health based on a set of eight criteria that include a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, healthy sleep pattern, healthy weight measured by body mass index (BMI), and blood lipids, glucose, and pressure in normal ranges. The first set of criteria, called Life’s Simple Seven, were expanded recently into Life’s Essential Eight (LE8) to include healthy sleep patterns, now recognized as critically important.

The intent of LE8 is to establish actionable behavior available to everyone that directly promotes a healthy lifestyle and leads to greater cardiovascular disease-free survival, longevity, and higher quality of life.

I would expand LE8 to LE9 by including social support that can take many forms, such as a happy marriage, friends, community, and even pets. A happy non-stressful life improves cardiovascular health.

LE8 calculates cardiovascular health by assigning a score to each category, totaling them, and dividing by eight. Thus, the highest or healthiest cardiovascular health score possible is 100. Overall scores below 50 indicate “low” cardiovascular health, 50-79 “moderate,” and scores of 80 and above indicate “high” cardiovascular health.

The average cardiovascular health score for U.S. adults and children is 65, lowest at older ages and in the areas of diet, physical activity, and BMI. Only 20 percent of Americans scored a high cardiovascular health mark. Ethnicity was an important determinant: Non-Hispanic Asian Americans had a higher average cardiovascular health score than other racial/ethnic groups, followed by non-Hispanic whites, and then by Hispanic (other than Mexican), Mexican, and Non-Hispanic Black individuals. Only .45 percent of adults scored 100.

These results are appalling. Each time I see a family with obese parents and, even worse, obese children, often eating junk food, I shudder to envisage their cardiovascular future. To quote the famous Boston physician, Paul Dudley White, “Death from a heart attack before the age of 80 is not God’s will, it is man’s will.” Obesity also creates a risk for later development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

If you want to improve your heart health, listen to believable sources such as the AHA, pay close attention to the LE8 (or, preferably, LE9), and live longer and happier lives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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