Health News Review

“Know Your Numbers” campaigns can serve a useful purpose.

But they can also be guilty of non-evidence-based fear-mongering.  They can fuel obsessions with numbers that fully-informed people might just as soon not know anything about. There can be harm living our lives worrying about numbers, test results – making ourselves sick when we are, in fact, healthy.

Here’s a screenshot of just a tiny part of a Google search result of “Know Your Numbers” campaigns.  The list goes on and on and on.

The most recent that I saw was in the January 2014 edition of Prevention magazine.  It’s entitled, “Know Your Numbers: The 5 Health Stats You Should Know.”

While we acknowledge the prestige of the Cleveland Clinic and its chief wellness officer, we point out that there is a lot of debate in medical science circles about what is laid out in this Prevention magazine piece. For example:

“There is strong evidence to support treating hypertensive persons aged 60 years or older to a BP goal of less than 150/90 mm Hg and hypertensive persons 30 through 59 years of age to a diastolic goal of less than 90 mm Hg; however, there is insufficient evidence in hypertensive persons younger than 60 years for a systolic goal, or in those younger than 30 years for a diastolic goal, so the panel recommends a BP of less than 140/90 mm Hg for those groups based on expert opinion”

So if 140/90 is where this group starts thinking about treatment, and if even the American Heart Association says normal is “less than 120/80,” what we have with an announcement that 115/75 is “ideal” is mission creep, medicalizing normal blood pressure, or disease-mongering. Where does this “ideal” come from?  It may only be a few points of difference, but with a few points, thousands of Americans suddenly become “less than ideal”…or, as we often call them, patients. One minute they’re healthy.  And then – voila – with a prestigious organization’s spokesman proclaiming a new “ideal” – they’re sick, abnormal, patients.

  • Cholesterol.  Hmmm.  Let’s see what the Cleveland Clinic website says about LDL and HDL. The Clinic’s own website says the LDL goal value should be less than 130 for people who don’t have heart or blood vessel disease or high risk.  And since a Prevention magazine article reaches a broad audience, that’s the crowd we’re talking about. And the Clinic website says HDL goal value should be greater than 45.  So the Prevention magazine targets of LDL under 100 and HDL over 50 are again mission creep, medicalizing normal blood tests, or disease-mongering.  Please note:  we could (but won’t herein) write volumes about much broader questions about being obsessed over LDL or HDL numbers, which are surrogate markers that don’t tell people everything they need to know.
  • This is the one that bugs me the most.  The article lists C-reactive protein as one of the “5 health stats you should know.”  What you should know is that the US Preventive Services Task Force does not share in that endorsement.  The USPSTF states that “the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of using the (the test) to screen asymptomatic men and women with no history of coronary heart disease (CHD) to prevent CHD events.” Even a brief look at other guidelines by other groups shows that the promotion of this test as a “stat you should know” is not as simple and uncomplicated as the Prevention magazine article makes it out to be.

Please note that almost exactly 2 years ago we wrote, “Cleveland Clinic’s Top 5 Tests for 2012 clash with many guidelines.” C-reactive protein was on that list as well.

And you may be interested in some of my past articles about “Know Your Numbers” campaigns:

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Comments

Laurence Alter posted on January 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

Dear Gary & Staff:

1. “Live by the numbers; die by the numbers”
2. “The facts speak for themselves”

Live by the first expression or idiom; die by the second one.

Fine physicians give subtlety and nuance behind “the numbers.”

Laurence Alter

    Gary Schwitzer posted on January 13, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Laurence,

    Thanks for your note, but for the umpteenth time, there is no staff.

    There wasn’t even any staff when we had funding. So there certainly isn’t any staff in the unfunded era.

    Whereas I once had help from as many as almost 40 different part-time contributors, they were not staff, just very limited part-time contributors.

    It’s just me, flying solo these days.

Gwyneth Olwyn posted on January 14, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Dear Gary By Himself:

1. Live by the numbers, die anyway.
2. Unequivocally one death per person.

There is no subtlety or nuance to be had for fine physicians in an era of standard of care and fear of litigation from failing to screen aggressively for potential disease.

Therefore a person needs to know ahead of getting his or her numbers checked whether he or she is ready to inadvertently become a patient based on numbers and that the treatments to change those numbers may have little to no evidence to support them.

shaun nerbas posted on January 20, 2014 at 3:01 pm

It seems that the patient must look out for themselves, ask questions, and not just accept the standard script of medical people. I had an MI 4 years ago (stent placed in the LAD which was nearly 100% blocked ) , but in the 2.5 months before that I saw 4 different doctors who told me nothing was wrong. I had normal LDL and total cholesterol,but I did have low HDL, which I had recently raised up to a ” nearly normal ” value using niacin. I walked for 1.5 hours a day, but in that 2.5 month period before the MI, while walking, I started to get increasing shortness of breath, indigestion, and a pain in my upper back, between the shoulder blades. My doctor gave me Nexium . My doctor didn’t think it was my heart. He based that on having two relatives of his with heart disease, my normal ECG, and my normal cholesterol numbers. I saw other doctors, as my shortness of breath got worse, but again, they didn’t think it was my heart. Then one day I got the symptoms while eating lunch. I went to the local hospital,who after being in communication with a larger specialized hospital, sent me to that larger center, which put the stent in. I eventually learned that over 62% of MIs happen to people with ” normal cholesterol ” . How is it possible that the cholesterol numbers used by lay doctors are so useless for diagnosis ? Does heart disease have multiple causes or do we just not have a good understanding of how do diagnose and track it ? I almost never see this inadequacy discussed by the experts ! Subsequent to my MI I became a vegan to improve my diet to remove saturated fat, which along with a grandmother who had a heart problem, were, in my mind, the reasons for my heart disease. My cardiologist acted as if I was misguided with the vegan approach, which he felt was a path almost nobody could follow.. ….. just take the statins. Maybe Cardiology is a very lucrative occupation that keeps us coming back…..see you next time ! Sorry for being so cynical, but that’s how I feel.