What We Now Know About Medical Concerns

Doctor holding clipboard

Times have changed and so has what we know about health. Karen Fittall compares the ‘then’ and ‘now’ surrounding some common medical concerns.

We used to think stomach ulcers were caused by stress, you were protected against breast cancer if it didn’t run in the family and heart disease only affected men. And, despite being debunked by research, some health ‘truths’ are still doing the rounds, which is why we’ve examined the old versus new thinking about some common health complaints, as well as shedding some light on what the latest research reveals.

Type 2 diabetes

We used to think: that it only affected adults.

We now know: it can occur earlier in life, with children and teenagers being diagnosed more frequently than ever before. Two of the main risk factors include being overweight and carrying too much stomach weight. One in four Australian children are now overweight — a stark comparison to the 1960s when just five per cent had a weight problem, and by 2020 it’s predicted the figure could be as high as one in two.

What you might not realise: is that your risk increases if type 2 diabetes runs in the family, doubling if one parent has it and increasing by as much as six times if both do. However, up to 60 percent of type 2 diabetes is preventable. “Because obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise all combine to be risk factors, if people address what we call ‘lifestyle’ factors, they can significantly reduce their risk of developing the disease,” says Dr Neale Cohen, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.

Breast cancer

We used to think: that we were immune if it didn’t run in the family.

We now know: that only a small percentage — somewhere between five and 10 percent — of breast cancers are caused by ‘faulty’ genes. So, while the risk for women who inherit these genes increases from 11 to between 40 and 80 per cent, most women who get breast cancer don’t have a strong family history of the disease.

What you might not realise: is that the same faulty genes that have been identified as increasing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer (called the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes) have also been linked to prostate cancer. Not only does this mean you can inherit the gene mutation from either parent, but for men, a strong family history of relatives with either breast or ovarian cancer may be a red flag for an increased prostate cancer risk.

The common cold & flu

We used to think: that being cold, or having wet hair during cold weather could independently cause a cold or the flu. It made sense considering we get sick more often in winter. We now know: that you have to be infected with a virus to develop a cold or flu so, on its own, being too cold won’t increase your risk.

But, according to Welsh researchers, if your feet get cold and wet after you’ve been exposed to the virus, it does increase the risk of developing a full-blown cold. Why does the flu strike more during winter? Colder temperatures form a coating around the influenza virus, allowing it to survive more easily as it travels between people.

What you might not realise: is that, as well as sleep helping to fight a bug, so does having an understanding doctor. An American study found that when patients thought their doctor was empathetic to how a cold was making them feel, they got over their symptoms a day faster.