Successful Aging: How to address and verify what’s a ‘miracle cure’ claim
Q Although active, my father at age 83 has a number of chronic conditions. Among them are painful knees and urinary incontinence. He believes both can be fixed or cured and continues to respond to newspaper ads that claim to be the answer. How can I convince him that most of these are hoaxes? He just cannot accept the fact he is getting older.
A Dear B.K.:
The quest for the fountain of youth is not new, yet it continues to endure. In a society that tends to value youth over old age, fighting to retain what we perceive as youth is understandable. Of course, quick fixes are always appealing.
Perhaps the first step is to determine whether your father’s physician has addressed the two issues you raised. If so, what were the recommendations, and are they being followed by your father? If you have some doubts about the conversation, consider accompanying your father to his next doctor’s appointment.
Next is the question of determining what condition(s) is related to normal aging and what are possibly caused by disease, medications or lifestyle? Consider reviewing lifestyle habits that involve sleep, nutrition, exercise, social connections and having a purpose in life.
One approach to the issue you raised about potential hoaxes is to have a plan that analyzes health information. Sandra Alters and Wendy Schiff, co-authors of “Essential Concepts for Healthy Living,” developed a six-point approach which might be helpful.
• Verify statements in the advertisement. Determine which are verified by fact, are unverified or are claims about the product’s value. Verifiable facts are conclusions from scientific research or statements from credible resources. Unverified claims are conclusions with no support. Value claims simply suggest something is useful or effective.
• Evaluate the credentials of the person who wrote the advertisement. Articles that may be part of the advertisement usually state the name and credentials of the author. In some cases the credentials may be fraudulent. Anyone can claim to be a doctor, nutritionist or health expert.
Credentials can be checked by contacting the institutions; accreditation can be checked by contacting the U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov).
• Determine the motive or possible biases of the author. Ads are designed for the consumer to buy the product. If the author developed the product, that individual may have a financial interest that could affect objective reporting of the product’s effectiveness and value.
• Assess relevant and irrelevant information. In particular, be aware of red flags that may suggest misinformation such as the following: “all natural,” “chemical free,” “scientifically proven,” “guaranteed to work” and “everyone is using it.” Note that testimonials often are given by celebrities and sports figures who get paid to promote the product.
• Consider if the source provides reliable information. Does the advertisement give the pros and cons of the product along with the risks and benefits? Look for the inclusion of referenced articles from a peer-reviewed journals. These are publications with articles that have been reviewed by experts in the field prior to publication.
• Determine if the advertisement discredits the credibility of scientists and medical authorities. “Unknown to western medicine” or “used for centuries in China” suggest the U.S. is lagging in scientific knowledge and application. Statements that attack usual medical practices might be unreliable.
The next task is to influence your father’s thinking about the value and relevance of the analysis. If he is reluctant to change his mind, it might be necessary to go through this process repeatedly for each product and advertisement that your father encounters to protect him from possible harm and wasting his dollars.
You also might have a conversation about gratitude for what is working well in his life. It might provide a level of new awareness.
B.K., you have a challenge. Keep at it and hopefully your father will acknowledge that fact-finding is for his benefit. Clearly you are a caring daughter. And thank you for your good question.
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