How Many Diseases Do You Have?

HOW MANY DISEASES DO YOU HAVE?….You know those stories you’re always reading (or, more likely, watching on the evening news) about various dread diseases and how many people have them? Usually, even though they’re things you’ve never heard of before, it turns out that tens of millions of people suffer from them.

I’ve always been vaguely skeptical of this stuff, but I’ve never cared enough to really check any of it out. Luckily, Frank Greve of Knight Ridder has done it for me:

Add up the published claims about disease prevalence and the average American has at least two ailments at a time.

Who’s pushing the high numbers? Skeptical bio-statisticians blame drug companies and reporters for much of the hype. They also blame research institutes and disease foundations seeking more public spending on particular diseases.

….A case in point: stories about shopping addiction, a vaguely defined compulsion that some drug companies would like to treat with antidepressants.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 17 million Americans are compulsive shoppers. A doctor on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s popular health Web site ( says it’s 15 million. Ronald Faber, a University of Minnesota Twin Cities professor whose 1992 study provided the high-end figures for both articles, begs to differ. Faber said reporters almost always ignore his report’s conclusion that the low-end estimate of 2 million to 4 million was the better one.

This is not exactly a big surprise or anything, but it’s still nice to know. Just one more thing we can chalk up to the seemingly everpresent fearmongers who infest the news business these days.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, you can always just make up numbers if misrepresenting actual research is too much work. Greve’s sidebar story about footsore gardeners is a case in point.

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