Don’t believe everything you read in the media

One of my favorite slides to use in talks is a picture of George Washington and superimposed on his portrait is the phrase "Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. (George Washington)." How cute is that?

When search engines and fast online access put the world at one’s fingertips, doctors noted a new phenomenon – cyberchondria. People would present with a symptom of something likely to have quite a common and mundane cause but would be convinced they had a rare, possibly incomprehensible and even potentially non-existent disease. Common things are common in medicine; if it quacks, has webbed feet and is swimming on a body of water labeled "duck pond" it is probably not a dodo.

The ease with which "information" can be posted puts hyperbole and fiction within reach of the misguided, those with limited knowledge, motivation to profit from others’ misfortune or some other perverse reason. So the Reagan-era catchphrase resonates: "trust, but verify."

As pilots we tend to seek multiple fragments of data to reach sound and safe conclusions; we do not just gaze briefly up at the sky, but ponder various meteorological websites and spend time chatting to the knowledgeable folks at 1 800 WX BRIEF. We participate in meetings, read books and journals, talk to fellow pilots and perpetually seek to enhance our skills such that we can perpetuate our lives.

So I am rather baffled about certain behaviors that seem, on the surface, counter-intuitive. Why do pilots take medications without checking if they allowable? Why might pilots hide information from their AME? Yes, I know such a disclosure might lead to a temporary or even permanent loss of flying privileges, but the alternative might have much more serious consequences. And why are pilots just like the rest of this great country not looking after their health?

I have written ad nauseum about wellness and the implications of failing to exercise, control weight and address health issues promptly and with the same attention one would address an engine failure at climb-out. Fly the airplane first and foremost. In this case, you are the airplane, Human v 1.0.

This missive was inspired by a communication I had from a middle aged aviator who does not exercise, eats a poor diet, has a number of health issues and, surprise, surprise is overweight. He has sleep apnea, a topic we have covered before in the magazine (Perchance to dream. AOPA Pilot, December 2011 page 32), in Fly Well videos and mailbag responses so I will not go into too much detail about the condition other than to say it is serious and merits serious attention. Losing weight must be part of that equation and merely relying on the medical profession to provide a solution is as ludicrous as expecting ATC to take full responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight; you are PIC of your airplane and your life.

Just today I learned that at the upcoming European Respirator Society meeting in London, England, Dr. Ane Johannessen, who studies the epidemiology of disease at Bergen University in Norway, is going to present some interesting work. In a study of 12,000 people, it was noted that one quarter of men snored at least three nights per week and women were not spared this problem - nor were each gender’s bed-partners! Knowing that even second-hand smoke can impact lung function they looked at commuting habits and those who were exposed to more pollution had more of a problem. Could it be that those people who are not active and drive, rather than walk to work or who are engaged in an outdoor occupation may tend to be more obese and therefore more at risk? We don’t know yet. But we do know the risk factors for sleep apnea and here is one more.

So the message is clear; take care of those risk factors you can control and, as much as possible avoid those you cannot. When I think of sleep apnea it reminds me of a dog repeatedly chasing cars; it is not going to end well.

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Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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