Take a Deep Breath and Call Us Tomorrow

If you believe what you read or hear in the media, we’re a nation of invalids.

“Add up the published claims about disease prevalence and the average American has at least two ailments at a time,” writes Frank Greve of Knight Ridder Newspapers’s Washington bureau.

Greve cites some examples:

A Baltimore Sun report says 20 million Americans suffer from depression. A patient-care newsletter says 10 million Americans older than 50 have the bone-wasting disease osteoporosis. Other published reports say 13 million Americans have hypothyroidism, 7.9 million are alcoholics, 40 million have the hearing defect known as tinnitus, 62 million have digestive diseases and 70 million have some form of arthritis.

U.S. population: 293 million.

As we’ve noted here before, journalists aren’t the best mathematicians — and are often vulnerable to conveniently manipulated or erroneous data. When it comes to the trendy disease beat, the ranks of the gullible and unskeptical are large.

Who’s pushing the numbers? Says Greve: “[B]io-statisticians blame drug companies and reporters for much of the hype. They also blame research institutes and disease foundations seeking more public spending on particular diseases.”

These days, prevalence statistics are often part of a larger effort to persuade people that what they consider a human condition is really a disease. Your grandfather snored. But you — and 18 million other Americans, according to the Sleep Foundation — have a breathing disorder called sleep apnea. Your mother blushed and perspired. But you — and 7 million other Americans — have an excessive sweating disorder called hyperhidrosis, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society.

Bio-statisticians like the University of Chicago’s Mary Grace Kovar “fault reporters for thumping the tub — or worse — to make new diseases newsy,” writes Greve. A case in point: stories about shopping addiction, a vaguely defined compulsion that some drug companies would like to treat with antidepressants.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 17 million Americans are compulsive shoppers. A doctor on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s popular health Web site says it’s 15 million. Ronald Faber, a University of Minnesota Twin Cities professor whose 1992 study provided the high-end figures for both articles, begs to differ. Faber said reporters almost always ignore his report’s conclusion that the low-end estimate of 2 million to 4 million was the better one.

“Everybody wants the topic they’re talking about to sound important,” Faber told Greve. “To get the story read, you need to grab people’s attention, and big numbers grab attention.”

And research bucks.

“The more people who have something, the more likely they’ll get funding for it,” according to Susan Ellenberg, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

And drug companies make their biggest bucks by selling cures for those same epidemics. Surprise, surprise, writes Greve: The makers of Viagra, Levitra and Cialis spent $425 million on advertising last year.

We’d make a joke about the ailment “media dysfunction” here, but we’re afraid somebody’d come down with it tomorrow.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.