Friday, July 17, 2015

Stumbling right at the start

If you are looking for a startling statistic about medicine, you might be tempted to look at   Dr. Joseph Mercola’s popular, which claims to be The World’s #1 Natural Health Website. I suggest that you don’t, based on the example of an article there titled Anxiety is 800% more prevalent than all cancers combined that appeared on June 11th. He stumbles right at the start, and doesn’t manage to find the most startling statistics. You can do better. 

The first three paragraphs say that:

“According to recent research (Ref. 1) anxiety (characterized by constant and overwhelming worry and fear) is becoming increasingly prevalent in the US, now eclipsing all forms of cancer by 800 percent. 

Nearly 13 million adults have struggled with anxiety in the past year, the study found; including 4.3 million people who were employed full time, and 5.9 million who were unemployed.

In all, nearly six percent of adults over the age of 18 report having anxiety. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available, and some of the most effective treatments are also among the safest and least expensive, and don’t involve drugs.”

Reference 1 is a CBHSQ Report web page at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), dated May 21, 2015. But it says nothing about anxiety becoming increasingly prevalent. It also says nothing about cancer. That comparison really came from Reference 3, a May 27th article by Lindsay Holmes at the Huffington Post titled This Mental Health Issue is more prevalent than all forms of cancer combined.

What about Mercola’s Reference 2? That’s a non-working link to another SAMSHA web page from Reference 1 (that also appeared in the Huffington Post article).

Reference 1 also has a link to a much more detailed 94-page report from October 2014 titled Past Year Mental Disorders among Adults in the United States: Results from the 2008-2012 Mental Health Surveillance Study. Table 3.1 on page 7 lists percentages for other categories of past year mental health disorders.

How do they compare with the 5.7% for anxiety? As shown above in a summary bar chart, three others are higher than anxiety - Substance Use (7.8%), Mood (7.4%), and Adjustment (6.9%). Page 14 compares their results with those obtained earlier in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R).

The earlier results for anxiety disorders from the NCS-R (shown above in another bar chart) were higher than those in the MHSS, which doesn’t support Mercola’s claim that anxiety is becoming increasingly prevalent. For example, 18.1% had anxiety versus the 5.7% in the MHSS. The 18.1% is what you will find when you look for Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults at  the website for the National Institute of Mental Health.

How can you get even more startling statistics? Instead of just the past year, cite the larger estimates for lifetime prevalence, as are shown above in another summary bar chart. But, note that substance abuse (35.3%) is more prevalent than anxiety (31.2%).

A more detailed listing of the full spectrum for lifetime prevalences is shown above in another bar chart. Under social phobia I have also listed the prevalence for the subtype of public speaking/performance anxiety. 

Differences in how the two studies were done have been discussed in a March 19, 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service titled Prevalence of Mental Illness in the United States: Data Sources and Estimates.   

So, Mercola didn’t manage to find the most startling statistics. I suspect that he focused on that combination of anxiety and cancer just because those both were very popular topics. Joe has been called an overwrought professional alarmist (opa). There’s much more in his article, but I’m not going to bother with dissecting it.

Back in 2006 an article in Business Week by David E. Gumpert described Mercola’s use of Old-Time Sales Tricks on the Net. Another article about him in the February 2012 issue of Chicago magazine was titled Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack?

The image of a fallen hurdler was adapted from an old poster.

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