The Most Controversial Health Stories of 2011
Biggest health stories
If there's one thing you can say about 2011 from a health point of view, it's that it wasn't boring!
From killer vitamins to Charlie Sheen's excesses to scientists flip-flopping on the dangers of cell phones and salt, our heads are spinning as we sort through the headlines.
Here are our picks for the year's most buzz-worthy stories—share yours on facebook.com/healthmag.
Are PSA screenings for prostate cancer actually hurting men?
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made waves in October when it recommended that the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer be given a “D” rating and no longer used. The screening has saved few, if any, lives over the years, the task force said, and treatments for slow-growing cancers sometimes uncovered by the tests can result in debilitating side effects. The Prostate Cancer Foundation, however, called the decision a “tremendous mistake.”
Are mammograms and breast self-exams worth it?
In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said most women don’t need mammograms until age 50. But a pair of studies released in April supported the idea that women in their 40s, especially minority women, should get annual mammograms. The tables turned again in July, when it was revealed that mammograms analyzed with a technology called computer-aided detection aren’t helpful in detecting cancers—only in producing false positives and causing unnecessary biopsies. But in September, researchers announced that both mammograms and breast self-exams are indeed useful for detecting breast cancer, including in younger women. The bottom line? Talk to your doctor.
Is your multivitamin killing you?
Mom may have told you to take your vitamins, but a study published in October found that older women who took multivitamins and other dietary supplements—such as iron, folic acid, vitamin B, and zinc—actually had a higher risk of dying earlier. The study showed only an association—not cause and effect—and it didn’t ask the women about underlying health conditions for which they may have been taking the supplements.
K2 synthetic marijuana is sending kids to the ER
Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. That’s the message doctors hope to send to teenagers smoking K2, a synthetic form of marijuana. In November, the American Association of Poison Control Centers revealed that, since the beginning of 2010, it had received nearly 2,000 reports of people becoming ill (sometimes with life-threatening symptoms) after smoking the herb, which also goes by the names Spice, Yucatan Fire, Genie, and Fire and Ice. Many users are sent to the emergency room with racing hearts, extreme anxiety, and hallucinations.
Individual mandate in Obama’s health-care plan defeated
Every American should have health insurance, President Barack Obama said during his campaign for the Oval Office—but making that happen is proving easier said than done. In August, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “individual mandate” rule in Obama’s health-care reform package after 26 states had sued to block its implementation. The rule would have required people to obtain health-care coverage or pay a fine—an action that went beyond Congress’s constitutional powers, the Court said.
Free birth control and morning-after pill on the way
In a big advance for women’s reproductive rights, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this year that beginning in August 2012, birth control would be covered by insurance companies, free of copays. The decision was one of eight new measures aimed at providing preventive health services to women. Some conservative groups protested the decision, claiming that it undermined individual rights and forced a program on people who may have religious or moral opposition.
Pregnant woman runs marathon, gives birth hours later
Race-day spectators watched in awe as Amber Miller crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon in October—and proceeded to go into labor. When she gave birth to a healthy baby hours later, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Was that safe!?” Experts have long recommended exercise during pregnancy, but this takes it to an extreme. (And here’s perhaps the biggest news of all: She still finished before her husband!)
Michele Bachmann claims vaccine causes mental retardation
The Republican presidential candidate says Gardasil, a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer is “a very dangerous drug.” In September she attacked Texas governor and fellow Republican candidate Rick Perry for making the vaccine mandatory for young girls in Texas and suggested to Matt Lauer on “Today” that it may cause mental retardation. But in October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not only said the vaccine is safe but also recommended young males be vaccinated as well as females.
Turn brown eyes blue with new laser
For when colored contacts just aren’t permanent enough, a California company claims its new laser technology can change brown eyes blue. The technology won’t be available in the United States for at least three years, but it’s already sparking questions about genetic identity and family ties. (Eye color is one of the inevitable traits passed down from parents to children.) In November, “Time”’s Healthland blog published a story on why the idea feels “off-color."
Reality-TV mom Michelle Duggar pregnant with 20th child
Even after their 19th daughter was born prematurely—and mom Michelle suffered life-threatening preeclampsia—the Duggar family announced in November that they are expecting another child. The reality stars, who live in Arkansas and have a show on TLC, have faced mounting criticism over their ever-expanding family.
Barefoot running shoes are hot, may cause injury
They’ve been hailed as the “real” way to run, to prevent injury and to reverse the harm that regular running shoes with lots of padding under the heel cause to our natural gait. But as more people have jumped on the barefoot-running wagon, researchers have begun to caution about potential injuries caused by switching shoe styles too quickly. These minimalist shoes, which contain little if any padding and encourage runners to land on their mid-foot or forefoot, lack the support and cushioning many runners need, especially if they continue to land on their heels in their new shoes.
Chaz Bono brings transsexuality to prime time
Dancing With the Stars
has dealt with its share of controversy over the years, but when it invited Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono to be a contestant this season, the show faced a completely new kind of criticism. Parent and religious organizations complained how difficult it would be to explain transsexuality to children watching the primetime program, while supporters praised the show’s open-mindedness and inclusiveness.
No TV before age 2, say pediatricians
The recommendation has been around for a few years, but in October the American Academy of Pediatrics made it official: No television is the best television for children under the 2. Kids instead should be encouraged to think creatively during periods of unstructured “free play,” they said. The announcement was a blow to companies that market educational videos for babies—as well as any parents enjoying a rare moment of peace and quiet!
Mississippi almost bans abortion, birth control
Voters in Mississippi came close to redefining what, by law, would be considered a human life with a proposed amendment to their state constitution that was rejected in October. The “Personhood” amendment, if passed, would have defined life as starting at conception, therefore making abortion and several forms of birth control illegal. The proposal sparked a controversy in the state and across the nation over faith, family values, and whether abortion should be considered murder.
High-salt diets might kill you—but low-salt diets might too
We’ve always been told that too much sodium raises your blood pressure, but a report published in May found that death from cardiovascular problems was 56% higher for men who ate the least amount of sodium. Although some people with hypertension should lower their salt intake, experts say, reducing sodium isn’t necessarily good for everyone. To make matters more confusing, a large, 15-year study published in July found that people who eat more sodium and less potassium die sooner of heart problems than those who consume the opposite.
Scary pictures on cigarettes not fair
In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled nine graphic images it planned to add to cigarette packs in September 2012. The labels, which show pictures of the harmful effects of smoking—a man with a tracheotomy, a woman holding a baby as smoke swirls around them, a mouth with smoke-stained teeth and open sores—also include warning language about addiction and health problems, along with a quit-line phone number. Just a month later, however, the FDA’s plans were derailed when a judge ruled that the packaging violated the tobacco industry’s freedom of speech.
No-tears baby shampoo may be toxic
It’s known as the no-tears formula, but Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo should perhaps be recognized for something else: toxic chemicals that are still lurking in some formulas, says the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In November, the watchdog group sent the company a letter urging it to stop using formaldehyde-releasing substances in its popular shampoo brand. Johnson & Johnson responded by saying that it is gradually phasing out such harmful chemicals, but did not comment on this specific product.
Cell phones may or may not cause cancer
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in February when a British study found no link between cell phones and brain tumors. But before you can say “OMG”, cancer experts told the World Health Organization in May that cell phones may actually still cause brain cancer. The most recent study on the topic, released in July, found that cell phones don’t seem to pose a cancer risk to kids who use them regularly—but the researchers cautioned that more research is needed.
Sitting makes you fat, might kill you
You exercise, you eat right, you manage your stress—you’re the picture of health, right? Not if you have a desk job (or a comfy couch) and spend most of each day sitting on your rear, according to an American Cancer Society study published in June. Both women and men who sat for more than six hours a day were significantly more likely to die during the course of the study than those who sat fewer than three hours. Desk jockeys may feel that there’s nothing they can do about how much time they spend sitting, but some experts have suggested creative solutions, such as standing workstations or treadmills in the office.
Sex, drugs, and Charlie Sheen
The former Two and a Half Menstar’s very public breakdown in early 2011 divided the public into two camps: those on Team Charlie ("Winning!") and those who just wanted the ranting and raving to stop. "I heal—and unravel—really quickly," Sheen said on The Dan Patrick Show in February, speaking about his monthlong rehab stint following a trip to the hospital for abdominal pains. Sheen, who has suffered from drug and alcohol addiction in the past, eventually lost his starring sitcom role due to his erratic behavior and concern over his health, and has since embarked on a stand-up comedy tour.
Speech-Slurring Emmy Anchor: Stroke, Drunk, or Migraine?
Reporter Serene Branson’s bizarre telecast live from the Emmys in February made headlines for what she didn’t say: Fumbling her words and uttering nonsensical syllables, she caused news outlets to wonder whether she’d had a stroke on air. Some even questioned whether she was drunk or on drugs. Medical professionals examined Branson after the incident, and doctors revealed in the following days that she had actually suffered a short-term complex migraine.
How did Aretha Franklin get so slim?
After undergoing a mystery medical procedure in December 2010, the Queen of Soul’s surprising slim down became a hot topic in 2011—but in March, Franklin shot down rumors that she’d had bariatric surgery (also known as gastric bypass) or that she had pancreatic cancer. She did admit that her weight-loss did have something to do with the surgery she had, but declined to give more details, crediting her new figure to a healthier diet.
Dr. Conrad Murray found guilty in Michael Jackson’s death
The King of Pop’s personal physician was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in November for his role in the King of Pop’s 2009 death. A jury found that Murray disregarded the Hippocratic oath and recklessly treated Jackson’s insomnia with benzodiazepines and propofol, a potentially fatal anesthetic typically used for surgical procedures.
Steve Jobs’s death causes questions about safety of alternative cancer treatments
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs died in October after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His death—and subsequent news about the treatment decisions he made, revealed by his biographer, Walter Isaacson—brought into question the roles of traditional and alternative medicine. Isaacson said that at the end of his life, Jobs regretted his earlier choices to reject potentially life-saving surgery and opt instead for alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, a vegan diet, herbal remedies, and even consulting a psychic. In a column for CNN.com, however, Dr. Andrew Weil points out that there’s no way of knowing how long Jobs would have survived had he gone the traditional route.
Released from jail, Casey Anthony sees a psychiatrist
Perhaps the most controversial news story of the year was the Casey Anthony trial and its surprising not-guilty outcome. After Anthony was released from jail, People reported that she had been seeing a grief counselor and would soon begin seeing a female psychiatrist. “She needs serious help,” a source told “People”. Anthony’s mental stability was a topic of much speculation during the trial; her attorney said she needed treatment for the trauma of losing her child and being charged with the crime.
Did IVF cause Giuliana Rancic’s breast cancer?
anchor and reality-TV star Giuliana Rancic announced in October that she has breast cancer, which had been discovered during a mammogram ordered by her fertility specialist. (Rancic and her husband had been trying to get pregnant via in-vitro fertilization.) Experts say there is no clear link between the procedure and Rancic’s diagnosis, but because women undergoing IVF are exposed to high levels of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, speculation arose that it could possibly contribute to breast cancer.