Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Panic Attacks
The Advancement of Hypochondria by the Press

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, July 27, 1999 --  

When last week's New England Journal of Medicine published a study proving young women die twice as often after heart attacks as men, it was big news. Never mind that young women hardly ever get heart attacks. Never mind that the gap disappears when women get older. And never mind that the overall post-heart attack death risk for women isn't even 50 percent greater than that for men.1

The story was big news for one reason, and one reason only. American women have become a bunch of hypochondriacs.

Harsh words? Maybe. But what started as the sexual equalization of the news media -- the change in focus of print and television journalism from male-oriented news to more female-oriented features -- has more recently deteriorated into irresponsible scare-mongering.

The worst behaved news shows are those which target a female audience, like Dateline NBC. Some of its self-proclaimed "best features" include "Seasick: Is your seafood safe?", "What's in your water?", and, perhaps most appropriately, "Panic Attacks"2 Sadly, the problem of scare stories is not limited to tabloid news shows. Even mainstream newspapers have gotten in on the game. In the past two years, the Washington Post featured 111 articles about breast cancer, and only 44 articles about prostate cancer.3 This, despite the fact that prostate cancer kills about the same number of men each year as breast cancer kills women.4

Now, such scare stories might be defensible if they actually did some good educating people, but statistics show that Americans are very ignorant about these topics. Their beliefs reflect more the hype of the media than the reality of medical science. A recent poll showed that 61 percent of Americans wrongly believe that breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women.5

Not only are these stories ineffective in educating Americans, they actually cause real harm. Widespread publicity about reported health problems from breast implants has resulted in a wave of lawsuits that bankrupted Dow Corning in 1995, eliminating thousands of jobs. This happened despite numerous scientific studies that universally failed to find evidence of a link between serious diseases and breast implants.

Men, in particular, suffer the indirect consequences of this hysteria. Public pressure has created a surge in public spending to fight the "war" against breast cancer. Breast cancer research funding from the National Institute of Health this year will total $480 million.6 Prostate cancer, which kills as many men as breast cancer kills women, will receive a paltry $180 million in research funding from NIH.7 Given that men pay at least as many tax dollars to the Federal Government as women, it might be nice if they could get the same kind of attention.

The simple truth is that American men just aren't as prone to hypochondria as American women. You'll never see 10,000 men marching down the street wearing prostate cancer ribbons. We aren't as healthy as women. We die sooner. And nobody really cares.

  1. The New England Journal of Medicine, Sex-Based Differences in Early Mortality after Myocardial Infarction, July 22, 1999
  2. Dateline NBC, "Our Best Features," as posted July 26, 1999
  3., "A" Section Archive search results, July 25 1999
  4. American Cancer Society, 1998
  5. Discovery Health PULSE telephone survey, July 26, 1999 (Published in Newsweek magazine, August 2, 1999.)
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Planning for Prostate Cancer Research: Expanding the Scientific Framework and Professional Judgement Estimate, June 16, 1999
  7. Ibid., Breast Cancer: New Efforts Underway, October 21, 1998