Why did the Washington Post have such a "Glee"-ful story of a rich actress with osteopenia dancing?

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We really couldn’t believe that the Washington Post health blog, “The Checkup,” chose to trumpet actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s ability to dance on the TV show, “Glee.” The Post blogging-journalist wrote:

“Glee” was pretty darned great last night, eh? I was so wowed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s singing and also with her dancing. Paltrow’s dance performances were particularly impressive to me in light of her recent diagnosis of osteopenia, a thinning of the bones that can lead to osteoporosis.”

But even one of the online readers wondered about the journalist’s amazement about someone with osteopenia dancing:

“People with osteopenia or even osteoporosis usually have no outward signs or symptoms. They are more susceptible to breaks or fractures, but in their day to day lives may have absolutely no idea that they have it. It is not particularly impressive in and of itself for a person with either to be a good dancer. “

I had to run this by some of our HealthNewsReview.org medical editors.

Harold Demonaco, director of the Innovation Support Center of Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote me:

“I must admit that when I first read this headline in The Washington Post I was a bit bewildered. When did osteopenia (technically classified as a bone mineral density that is lower than normal) become an impediment to dancing? Has osteopenia now made it to the level of a disability? If so, there are a lot of women who have suddenly developed a medical condition that not only requires treatment but is disabling.

What ever the intent, the story sends a disturbing message. The first is that osteopenia, a condition “suffered by millions of active women” is in some way dangerous. Dancing and presumably many other weight bearing activities (including yoga, running, biking, aerobics, skiing to name a few) are now risky and participants should be hailed as either courageous or irresponsible depending on your acceptance of risky behaviors. Can this be?

In reality, millions of American women have osteopenia. Some will go on to osteoporosis and some of those will indeed suffer a fracture. But the line from osteopenia through osteoporosis and fracture is not straight and is certainly not predictable. Yes, women with osteopenia should perhaps alter their lifestyle. A well balanced diet is important. Calcium supplements and vitamin D may help as well as weight bearing activities, like dancing. So the suggestion that dancing is somehow dangerous is well off the mark.

This piece could be forgiven if it ran in the lifestyle section of a newspaper. The fact that it appears in “The Check Up” is truly bewildering.”

It didn’t feel like sound health journalism to me, either. There was not one word about many experts’ concerns about the disease-mongering of osteopenia – another pre-disease state that lowers the threshhold for what we call disease, opening new markets for people to be treated with drugs or vitamins or whatever.

I refer the Post – and any interest readers – to some of the following:

From the BMJ: “we need to ask whether the coming wave of marketing targeting those women with pre-osteoporosis will result in the sound effective prevention of fractures or the unnecessary and wasteful treatment of millions more healthy women.”

From the blog, “Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma”: “When the term (osteopenia) was formalized at a 1992 scientific meeting in Rome, it was seen simply as a name for the statistical condition of not-quite-osteoporosis, and not as a diagnosis, certainly not a disease that needed drug treatment.”

On MinnPost.com: “Osteopenia is neither a disease nor a disorder.”

The reading list could go on and on. Perhaps there could have been even a hint of the controversy in the Washington Post’s gleeful account.

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Comments (8)

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Ken Leebow

November 19, 2010 at 10:30 am

After listening to the NPR report, I asked my wife to get off the drug for osteopinia. “Miraculously” after consulting with her doctor, she was taken off the drug.
There is another bad side effect to taking these drugs. The cost of health insurance goes up and frequently a new insurance policy will not cover the drug. It’s all a “Catch-22.”
As the author of a diet, health, and lifestyle book, I have found this timeless quote to be the solution to many health-related issues: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates
Maybe it’s time we go back in time instead of blindly believing that meds and technology are the solutions.
Ken Leebow


November 19, 2010 at 10:49 am

Great analysis and examination of the health writing currently so prevalent. This ineffective type of coverage in the Washington Post health blog critiqued above can be described as sensationalism combined with inaccuracy. The term “disease-mongering” is a perfect description. The patients that need health enhancement the most are frequently the targets of these types of pseudo “undiagnosed” disease-for-treatment promises. Thank you for what you are doing here. Raising awareness of the declining standards of health and science communication will surely have two positive effects among many others- doctors will be more willing to participate in interviews and patients will be much better informed.


November 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm

NPR did a fabulous piece almost a year ago on how osteopenia came to be a ‘disease’ in the first place. (Hint: industry WAS involved.)

Mrs. Life

November 23, 2010 at 9:05 pm

I read that last week, and I was a bit baffled as to why it was an issue in the first place. Sure her bones were probably weaker than normal because of her own microbiotic diet that she went through in th past but I don’t think it makes dancing a “couranges” feat.