Harvard Health Letter Survey Shows Harvard Doctors Practice What They Preach

Personal habits covered include: alternative medicine use, diet, exercise, vitamin use, body weight, smoking, and more

BOSTON, Oct. 3 /PRNewswire/ — Do Harvard doctors practice what they
preach? The Harvard Health Letter, the country’s first health newsletter for
the general public, recently surveyed more than 15,000 Harvard Medical School
faculty physicians about their health habits and found that, in many cases,
yes, they do.

In this 30th anniversary year for the Harvard Health Letter, the editors
decided to revive a tradition-two similar surveys were conducted in 1982 and
1992. Results from the 2,115 faculty members (1,185 male and 930 female) who
responded were reported in the October issue. Highlights include:

Diet and exercise

Most (82 percent) eat breakfast regularly and many get at least three
servings of fruit or vegetables a day. Few (12 percent) regularly eat at fast-
food restaurants, about half drink alcohol in moderation (one to five drinks
per week), and a solid majority (57 percent) use olive oil over less healthy

As for activity level, more than half claimed to exercise at least three
times a week at a moderate intensity or higher. These good habits pay off.
The faculty’s average body mass index (BMI) was 23.9, which is on the high end
of the 18.5-25 healthy range.

There were some outliers. The survey found 119 couch potatoes who reported
exercising less than once a week for under 30 minutes at mild intensity. About
half of these non-exercisers also reported eating less than two servings of
fruit or vegetables on most days. With about a third of the respondents
overall either overweight or obese, it’s not surprising that almost half said
they’ve tried to lose weight sometime in the past five years. “The members of
the faculty that answered our survey seem to eat a little less, and to weigh a
little less, than most people their age in the U.S.,” said Dr. Anthony
Komaroff, Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Health Letter.


Experts suggest taking a multivitamin as a nutritional safety net, and
77.7 percent of the faculty members who filled out the survey said they were
heeding that advice. Calcium supplements are also popular, especially among
women (48.6 percent) and those over age 50 (36.2 percent). However, only 8.4
percent of respondents take Vitamin D, which may be more important than
calcium for osteoporosis prevention. The percentage was higher among women and
older faculty members.

Alternative medicine

Surveys report that about a third of Americans routinely use some form of
alternative medicine. What about Harvard doctors? Less than 13 percent of
respondents have had chiropractic or acupuncture, but more than a quarter have
taken an herbal supplement. Half chose “curious,” “open-minded,” or
“enthusiastic” to describe their attitude towards alternative medicine. Older
doctors were more likely to be skeptical of alternative treatments than
younger ones, as were male doctors compared to female ones.


Of the approximately 930 women who answered the survey, only 141 said they
had menopausal symptoms worth treating. Most used either low-dose estrogen
alone or low-dose estrogen with progestin. A majority taking hormones kept
taking them despite negative results from the Women’s Health Initiative, which
found that post-menopausal hormones increase the risk for heart disease and
breast cancer.

“We can only speculate as to why some faculty continue to take hormone
therapy despite the recommendations of the Women’s Health Initiative,” said
Dr. Komaroff. “Most likely, they tried going off, bothersome symptoms
recurred, and they made the personal decision that the benefit from reducing
their symptoms was greater to them than the risks reported by the study.”

Heart disease

The 174 respondents (8 percent) who rated their heart disease risk as
moderately high or above were taking many of the right steps to lower their
risk: exercise and eating less saturated fat and more fiber.

only 42.2 percent were taking a statin drug. The editors surmise that
ignorance of their cholesterol levels might be the problem — 41 percent of
those in the higher risk category didn’t know their LDL level. Aspirin use
among the men ages 50 and older (the group most likely to get the heart
disease benefit) with self-rated elevated risk was high (83 percent).

“It may be that some younger members of the faculty believe there is no
benefit from checking your cholesterol levels until you reach age 50 or 60,”
speculated Dr. Komaroff. “If so, they’re wrong: people with other cardiac
risk factors should know whether their cholesterol levels also put them at


Just 39 of the faculty members who answered the survey said they smoke. A
larger group (24.1 percent) smoked sometime in the past, though. That number
gets larger with age; in the ages 70 and older group, exactly half answered

The faculty members are conscientious about cancer screening tests. Over
75 percent of those ages 50 and over said they’d gotten a colonoscopy. Two-
thirds of women ages 40 and over indicated that they get a mammogram every
year. Among women ages 50 and over, that fraction grew to three-quarters.
Despite the debate about the PSA test for prostate cancer, 84 percent of the
male faculty ages 50 and over had been tested.

“PSA screening has not been shown to reduce the risk of suffering or death
from prostate cancer,” said Dr. Komaroff, “although studies of that question
are underway. Some doctors probably figure that it’s worth getting the blood
test until and unless it is definitively shown not to be of value.”

The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications,
the publishing division of Harvard Medical School. Other publications include
consumer health newsletters focusing on women’s health, men’s health, mental
health, and cardiovascular health; more than 40 special health reports; and 15
books. For more information, visit us at http://www.health.harvard.edu or call
1-877-649-9457 (toll free).

SOURCE Harvard Health Letter

Web Site: http://www.health.harvard.edu

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