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Published: Oct 13, 2022 By Gail Dutton
The internet and “common wisdom” aren’t always right. At worst, the disinformation they spread about common medical conditions is wrong or even harmful. Here are some of the top myths about three common conditions, and the truth from leading experts in their fields.
Heart Disease Myths Dispelled
Myth buster: Lauren Gilstrap, M.D., MPH, cardiologist, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center
“Sometimes people think they have more control over things than they do, or are beating themselves up for something that may never have been within their control.”
Myth #1: If you have heart disease you shouldn’t exercise.
Fact: “Heart disease is a very broad category ranging from high blood pressure to coronary artery disease,” Gilstrap said. “The vast majority of patients not only can exercise, they absolutely should exercise and will derive significant health benefits. There are certain, very specific circumstances where exercise should be limited, and a patient’s cardiologist will have talked about that.
The American Heart Association recommends 60 minutes of at least moderate exercise five to six days a week, but I think it’s infinitely more important to do something that lights your soul on fire, that you are excited about, and that you will continue 1 year…5 years…10 years from now.”
Myth #2: High blood pressure is okay because blood pressure rises as we age.
Fact: “High blood pressure is more common as we age, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. You can do something about it, first by reducing salt in your diet. Salt is something you may not pay attention to because it’s in so many food products. To reduce salt intake, stop adding salt to your food, or use a salt substitute.
Exercise also helps, via the mechanism of weight loss. In general, for every one to two pounds you lose, you lower your blood pressure by about a millimeter of mercury (mmHG). Medical textbooks consider 120/80mmHg a normal reading, and doctors may prescribe medications when the systolic pressure – the upper number – is 140 or above. Our understanding of the importance of the diastolic pressure – the bottom number – has fluctuated over time.”
Myth #3: Bypass surgery will make your heart as good as new.
Fact: “I don’t think anyone would say surgery would make your heart as if you were 20 again. What matters is whether the heart muscle the surgeon is bypassing or stenting is alive and struggling, or dead. Stents or bypass surgery allow the heart to get the blood and oxygen it needs and, with the right medication, the heart muscle will “wake up” and start functioning again.”
Type II Diabetes Myths Busted
Myth buster: Subbulaxmi Trikudanathan, M.D., endocrinologist, medical director for the University of Washington Diabetes Institute
“There are several risk factors for developing diabetes that, together could multiply that risk, so…take things in moderation.”
Myth #1: Consuming too much sugar causes diabetes.
Fact: “Consuming sugar does not directly cause diabetes, but high-sugar foods are calorie dense, which makes one gain weight and so indirectly puts someone at risk of developing Type II diabetes,” Trikudanathan said.
“When we consume food, it is broken down into simple sugars in the blood. Insulin, a hormone, is secreted by certain cells in the pancreas, to move sugar – the glucose – from the bloodstream into the cells to make energy that is used by our muscles, tissues and various organs. If the insulin islet cells in the pancreas (which make the insulin) are destroyed, Type I diabetes occurs. That means there is not enough insulin and the blood sugar levels keep rising. Food doesn’t play a role.
In Type II diabetes, however, the insulin secreted by the pancreas is not recognized by the body and does not move that sugar from the blood to the cells. As a result, the pancreas gets the signal that there is more and more sugar and eventually the pancreas decompensates as if it’s exhausted. If you are in that state and are constantly eating sugary food, the sugar puts you directly at risk.”
Myth #2: Only overweight people get diabetes.
Fact: “High body weight is a significant risk factor for developing diabetes, but overweight people don’t necessarily develop Type II diabetes.
There are several other risk factors that, combined, could multiply the risk of developing diabetes. Family history, being of certain ethnicities (notably being Native American, South Asian or Hispanic), environmental factors and living in a calorie-dense milieu with less physical activity also increase your risk of developing diabetes.
Certain medical conditions, like polycystic ovary disease, also put people at risk. People with normal body weight can develop diabetes if they have some dysregulation of how the insulin is secreted. In Type I diabetes, for example, people may have an autoimmune condition that destroys the islet cells.”
Myth #3: Medication can overcome bad eating habits.
Fact: “Nutrition and physical activity are the foundation on which we add treatments for anyone with diabetes. That foundation must be strong for the medications to work (optimally). Everything needs moderation. For example, fats and protein cause a much slower increase in the blood sugar than carbohydrates, so we want our patients with diabetes to moderate their carbohydrate intake – eating fat, protein and fiber with them, for example – so blood sugar levels climb more slowly after meals.”
Alzheimer’s Disease Myths Exposed
Myth buster: Joseph Masdeu, M.D., Ph.D., director, Nantz National Alzheimer Center, at Houston Methodist Hospital & Medical Center
“Rely on the opinion of people who are very close to you and have seen you through the years. They can tell if you’re having more difficulties.”
Myth #1: You can buy medicine or equipment on the internet that is unique, and that doctors don’t want you to know about, because they are allied with the pharmaceutical companies.
Fact: “People are desperate, so they are susceptible to that lie,” Masdeu said. “Until recently, there has been no medication that either slows or prevents the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. A recent Phase III clinical trial by Biogen and Eisai showed lecanemab reduced the clinical decline of patients with early AD and mild cognitive impairment by 27 percent. There are other medications that may improve memory or behavior, but they don’t necessarily modify the disease.”
Myth #2: If you have a family history of AD, you will develop it. If there is no history, you won’t.
Fact: “Family history is important, but it isn’t the sole arbiter of whether you will develop this disease. A person who has a parent or sibling with AD is four times more likely to develop the disease than somebody with no family history, but the risk factors are mostly genetic in nature. For example, the APOE4 gene is known to predispose people to AD.
There are several things people can do to make it less likely that plaque will build up in their brains to create AD, even if they have the genetics that predispose them to that disease. Physical exercise for 15 to 30 minutes a day and mental exercise – interacting with other people – is very helpful, along with giving the body time to rest. Having the eyes closed and the lights out helps the brain clear the products that are produced during the day.”
Myth #3: Forgetfulness is an early sign of AD.
Fact: “As we age, our databases are getting bigger. We put in more and more information, and we tend to remember the things that are important to us at the time. So, a researcher concentrating on work who is then interrupted is less likely to remember the names of the people introduced during a quick interruption than, perhaps a waiter or salesperson who needs to remember names very well.
As a general rule, rely on people who have known you very well for a long time to notice whether you’re having more than normal difficulty remembering things.”
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