Some “Wives’ Tales” have merit… others can kill you! NBC’s Chief of Medicine—Nancy Snyderman—explores the myths
I first met Dr. Nancy Snyderman during a health conference held last fall in Indianapolis, Indiana that was hosted by Methodist Hospital and sponsored by Nightingale Home Healthcare.
It was exciting to meet not only a person with her credentials, but to meet a fellow Hoosier who has done well—she’s a former resident of Indiana. By “doing well” I mean that Dr. Snyderman is chief medical editor for NBC news and frequently appears on the Today show in various medicine-related features. She is on the staff of the otolaryngology-head and neck surgery department at the University of Pennsylvania, and specializes in head and neck cancer.
During the conference in Indy, she told us that her desire to become a physician began when she was a child accompanying her physician father on his “rounds” at Methodist hospital. Snyderman not only credits her parents for instilling in her a love for medicine, but good values as well. As she puts it, “they gave me the wisdom that “good food, good exercise, and good health all go together.”
After earning a degree in microbiology from Indiana University, Snyderman earned a medical degree from the University Of Nebraska School Of Medicine. She then followed up her training with medical residencies in pediatrics and ear, nose, and throat surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. She moved to Little Rock Arkansas, joining the surgical staff at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1983, specializing in throat and neck cancers. Around 1984, Snyderman began her broadcasting career at KATV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas. She served as a medical correspondent for ABC news for seventeen years and was as a contributor to 20/20, Prime Time, and Good Morning America. In 2006, she jumped to NBC and the rest is history. Her reports appear on Today, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, MSNBC and MSNBC.com. She has reported on wide-ranging medical topics affecting both men and women and has traveled the world extensively, reporting from many of the world’s most troubled areas. Most recently, she served as the sports desk reporter for NBC sports coverage of the 2008 summer Olympics.
Snyderman lives in Princeton NJ with her husband Doug and is the mother of three children...Kate, Rachel, and Charlie.
At the Indiana health conference, Snyderman issued two distinct messages loud and clear during a Q & A session. Number one… if you smoke QUIT! And another… if you are avoiding vaccinations for your children, DON’T! An audience member who heard a guest on a well-known talk show promoting the idea that childhood vaccinations caused her child to be autistic raised the question about vaccines. Snyderman took an adamant stand that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that vaccinations cause autism, and resurgence of polio from not being vaccinated was a much more likely development. “Vaccines have saved countless lives,” she told us.
In her recent book, Medical Myths That Can Kill You, Snyderman gives plain and practical advice about some well-accepted myths and the ignorance they instill that can be life threatening. “Some myths are downright silly, others are quite harmful, with a decidedly dark side, but all are worth our examination. Why? Knowing the difference between the reality and the myth can make your life better and even save it; there’s just no doubt about it,” she claims.
“Two of our greatest enemies in the battle against life-threatening diseases are ignorance and the personal beliefs we bring into the doctor’s office. Are there myths you believe and hold dear? Are there old wives’ tales you trust? Being willing to shift your thinking and embrace new ideas may not completely eradicate your disease risk, but it may be the first steps toward making changes in your life that will”
At Radius, we had the opportunity to review her book about myths and truths and found it to be quite informative. Her down-home style of writing and forthright manner in disputing myths while upholding proven medical truths is refreshing. Following are several excerpts from her book. We recommend it as a good resource to keep on your library shelf.
Myth #1…annual checkups are obsolete.
When I talk to people around the country, I am always surprised to find that so many men and women believe that annual physical examinations are unnecessary. Very few see their physicians on a regular basis. I realize there are some things we would just as soon not find out, like your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s entire sexual history before you met him or her, but having ourselves checked on a regular basis is a vital step we must take. If all of us took this step, diseases could be prevented or detected at an early stage when treatment is most effective--and lives would be saved. I know this from medical experience, but also know it from personal experience.
Truth… it is not okay to lie to your doctor
Are you still smoking? How much do you drink? Are you having risky sex?
When doctors ask these questions patients often lie because they’re embarrassed, don’t want to disappoint their physician and fear being judged. Or they might rationalize their lie, promising themselves to fix the problem in interim, so that the next time they’re queried, they won’t be lying. As doctors, we often know the truth anyway, because we’re trained be alert to symptoms and abnormalities, or we can run tests. If someone tells me she stopped drinking but has tremors or I smell alcohol on her breath, or elevated liver enzymes appear on a blood test, I know she’s tried to pull one over on me.
From my years of working in the medical field, I can tell you that doctors are not judgmental; we’ve seen it all and one nude body is, well, just another nude body. We live in a very puritanical society that keeps us muffled in shame and secrecy and stigmatizes certain behaviors like smoking. But it is better to not keep these issues bottled up, especially because a frank discussion with your doctor may bring to light a positive solution. Remember your doctor is there to help you get better, so don’t hold back on uncomfortable topics. Forget your shame or embarrassment and be honest. Being truthful just may save your life.
Truth… you do not need to drink eight glasses of water every day.
There’s no question that water is important. It transports nutrients, hormones, and oxygen to your cells and takes away waste products via the bloodstream and lymphatic system. Water also lubricates your joints and makes you feel better. That said, how much water should you drink? Let your thirst guide you. Then look at your urine from time to time. If it’s dark yellow or brown, you’re dehydrated. You want to take in enough fluid each day to keep your urine looking clear like…water.
Truth… sunglasses can prevent blindness.
Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion statement. They also protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet light. Exposure to sunlight is the leading cause of cataracts in the United States, and cataracts are the leading cause of blindness among elderly Americans. In people over 65, cataract surgery is one of the most common operations. The disease is one reason to wear sunglasses year-round to filter out the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays.
Truth…you can’t catch a cold from being in cold weather.
The myth that you can catch a cold from being cold, venturing outside in the rain without an umbrella, or going out into winter weather with wet hair dies hard. Even some historians are still reporting that president William Henry Harrison caught a cold that developed into fatal pneumonia because he made his inaugural speech in the rain. He died before he had been in office a month. If you read between the lines, they’re implying that had he only stayed dry, he would not have had the briefest presidency in the history of the office. The truth is that colds are caused by viruses that are transmitted from one person to another by touching something that has the virus on it, then touching your eye, nose, or mouth. Can you guess the easiest way to catch a cold? Shaking hands with someone, and then putting that hand to your face.
Truth…Doctors do want you to know about cures, natural or otherwise.
I get a little chapped when I read blurbs like “cures (or treatments) your doctor doesn’t want you to know about” or “cancer treatments banned by the U.S. government.” This is the stuff of conspiracy buffs. Being a doctor, I can tell you that we are, at our very core, healers. Why would we hide a cure or treatment for anything? Any time there is a medical breakthrough; it is quickly announced and put to good use—as the world has seen with antibiotics and vaccines. To suggest that the medical establishment would want to suppress or hide anything with the potential to heal is not only inaccurate but also highly unethical.
Truth…men get osteoporosis too.
Until recently men with osteoporosis have been under diagnosed, inadequately treated, or ignored even though two million American men have osteoporosis, and another twelve million are at risk for this disease. As a man, what can you do about this? For starters, teach yourself to trust yourself. If you have been taking certain medications for a long time, such as steroids, anticonvulsants, certain cancer treatments, and aluminum-containing antacids, or if you suffer from a chronic disease that affects the kidneys, lungs, stomach, and intestines and alters hormone levels, or if you engage in such lifestyle habits as smoking, excessive alcohol use, or lack of exercise, these are all major risk factors for osteoporosis. So are age and race (white men seem to have a higher risk). Taking your risk factors seriously is the first step to getting your doctor to take them seriously. Insist that your doctor pay attention and that the right tests be given. Doctors don’ t recommend that men supplement with calcium since this mineral creates risks for prostate issues. Guys: get your calcium from food.
Truth…eating eggs will not raise your cholesterol.
Eggs got a bad rap a couple of years ago because they have higher levels of cholesterol than other foods. Most of the cholesterol in eggs is concentrated in the yolk. But eating eggs isn’t really how we get high cholesterol. When we eat foods high in fat, the liver turns some of that fat into cholesterol. There are many other culprits in our food supply besides eggs that are turned into cholesterol, namely fatty meats and dairy products. Eggs are a great source of protein, and the white part is healthier and leaner than the yolk.
Like so many other things, enjoy your eggs in moderation. One egg contains about 213 milligrams of dietary cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, the daily-recommended cholesterol limit is less than 300 milligrams for people with normal LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. So you can enjoy eggs several times a week, if you limit cholesterol from other sources—skip the frying.
Truth…unfiltered coffee can raise your LDL, the “bad” cholesterol
My stubborn cholesterol level hadn’t budged despite my best intentions. I pulled a friend of mine aside, Joy Bauer, who is the nutrition expert on the Today show, and asked her what I could be doing wrong. Her first question to me was “Do you drink unfiltered coffee?” I told her that I’m a coffee lover and have several cups a day, some of which I brew in my European-style coffeemaker that puts a little foam on top. She suggested that I start filtering my coffee—using paper filters rather than the gold ones—to see if this would help bring my cholesterol down.
This was a shocker to me. It turns out that filtering coffee with paper filters removes a natural compound called cafestol that can increase levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol in your blood. So now I sacrifice a little richness and save the strong unfiltered coffee like expresso, cappuccino, Turkish coffee, and coffee brewed from those French press coffeemakers for an occasional treat. And yes, my cholesterol came down.
Myth #5…we’re losing the war on cancer
The fight against it (cancer) has been on the national agenda since 1971, when President Richard Nixon officially declared war on this dreaded disease. Since then, medicine has made great strides, and consequently, your risk of being diagnosed with cancer and risk of dying of cancer have decreased significantly. Fewer than half the people diagnosed with cancer today will die of the disease. Some are completely cured, and many more people survive for years with a good quality of life.
So I think there is no question that the war on cancer is being fought and won on multiple fronts—but it is not one “war.” Instead, we are battling—and winning—many skirmishes on many battlefronts: in breast cancer, colon cancer, testicular cancer, leukemia, malignant melanoma, and so on. The reason for all the optimism is the lifesaving knowledge we’ve gained in three critical areas: prevention, detection, and treatment.
Truth…earwax may predict breast cancer risk.
One of the genetic traits associated with breast cancer is wet earwax. The breasts and the glands that produce earwax are both apocrine glands. According to the National Cancer Institute, women with excessive wet earwax are twice as likely to develop breast cancer as are those with dry earwax. (Excessive means so much that it is practically oozing from your ears or heavy enough that your ears are regularly plugged up with it.) But before you start worrying about what type you have, there are other, more important risk factors within your control such as watching your weight, avoiding high-fat diets, getting physical activity, limiting your alcohol usage, and, for women, breast-feeding.
Truth…tap water is as good as bottled water.
Depending on where you live, tap water may be even better for you than the bottled stuff is. While labels prattle on about bottled water coming from mountain spring sources or wells on the slopes of volcanoes, between 25 and 40 percent of bottled water began life less exotically, as tap water. (Bottling companies buy the water and filter it, sometimes pulling minerals and fluoride out in the process.) In most cases, tap water adheres to stricter purity standards than does bottled water. Furthermore, studies have found contaminants in bottled water, such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards. So enjoy your bottled water when there aren’t other options. Relax when the waiter asks you if you want bottled or tap water, knowing that tap water is just fine…if not better.
Truth…bread is good for you
Bread is called the staff of life for a reason. It has nourished humans in numerous cultures for centuries. It hasn’t been until the past few years that we have demonized bread—and there’s a reason. We stripped bread of most of its nourishment and complexity when plastic-wrapped white bread was introduced to the U.S. market. That new bread was cheap and didn’t go stale quickly, but it was high in simple, low-nutrient carbohydrates and sugar and packed very little nutritional punch.
Personally, I think bread is one of the greatest gifts on earth and should be consumed with great joy. Today you can get fresh breads just about anywhere. When buying bread, look for those with at least two grams of fiber per slice. Stick with whole-wheat and whole-grain forms of bread, and don’t hesitate to freeze half the loaf if you are worried about keeping it fresh.
Truth…colon cleansing is unnecessary and can be dangerous.
Colon cleansing or colonics is a procedure that involves having an enema or using a laxative that completely evacuates the intestine. It has been touted as everything from a toxin remover to a cure for cancer. Some spas even offer the treatment. Use of enemas particularly scares me because it may involve unskilled personnel performing a procedure that could be harmful.
Not only does colon cleansing provide no benefit, it can be downright dangerous. There is a real risk of damaging the rectum and even perforating the bowel. Contrary to popular belief, the inside of the colon—the end of the large intestine—isn’t dirty and does not need to be cleaned out. Mother Nature does that on her own by making sure that waste passes through and out of your body, taking impurities with it. If you want to flush out impurities from your body, have another glass of water instead.
Truth…having a pet can keep you healthy.
Studies have found that dog owners age 50 and older visit the doctor less often, have fewer illnesses, and recover more quickly from illnesses than do people without dogs. Having a dog also gives you a reason to take a walk.
The mere physical contact with the dog or other pet can be a source of comfort and may decrease loneliness. Having a pet may also reduce anxiety because interacting with it can distract you from stress. I also think pet ownership makes you less selfish because you have to think about a creature other than yourself. But choose your pets wisely. There is nothing stress reducing about a dog that chews your favorite chair to bits or barks all night.
Truth…you’re never too old to start exercising.
If you didn’t work out when you were younger, could it be dangerous to start now? Not at all. In a Tufts University study, frail nursing home residents whose ages ranged from seventy-two to ninety-eight started a strength-training program, and after just ten weeks, they improved their muscle strength, ability to climb stairs, and walking speed. Even if you have a chronic disease, exercise is good for you. Some of the greatest benefits are seen in people with arthritis. Exercise reduces pain, and increases range of motion, strength, and mobility. I don’t mean to imply that you can jump right into exercising, regardless of your health. Anyone with an existing illness or multiple risk factors for a disease should check with a physician and start slowly.
You can find Dr. Snyderman’s books at Amazon.com.
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"Some “Wives’ Tales” have merit… others can kill you! NBC’s Chief of Medicine—Nancy Snyderman—explores the myths"
Patricia Kirby brings several years of journalism, editing, and publishing experience to Radius magazine. She is a published writer and former co-editor of Hoosier Outdoor magazine, with a distribution throughout the mid-west. Patricia is also a form...