Do you know your breast cancer risk?

Also, bad news for lefty ladies.

Published May 4, 2007 2:30PM (EDT)

Bones, boobs, brains and brawn. After a rash of headlines about women's health (perhaps to preempt the upcoming Women's Health Week) started giving me psychosomatic symptoms, I succumbed. The worst thing is to read only headlines!

First up is hormone replacement therapy, the Britney Spears of women's medical research -- she's hot, then she's not. Last week we reported on the new study that connected HRT, the once ubiquitous party-on-forever poster pharmaceutical, to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Now the ol' girl's making a comeback with a study that suggests that it helps prevent dementia, but only when women begin using the drug before the age of 65. This news contrasts with earlier studies finding that if women use HRT after 65, they increase their risks of going daft. Maybe it's not the HRT or even the old age that is softening the brain but decades of news flashes burning our synapses like wildfire.

Moving on to "The Tale of Two Stories" -- from the same new drug announcement. Depending on which newspaper you trust, Reclast, the new injectable bone-building drug, is either the best thing since penicillin or a risky proposition that could lead to stroke. In the Los Angeles Times we get the headline "Study: Drug for Osteoporosis Given Only Once a Year Works." On the other hand, the Associated Press' coverage, headlined "Studies Tie Drugs, Unusual Heart Rhythms," focuses on a link between Reclast and irregular heartbeat, which in turn can cause stroke.

Whom to believe? Basically the research isn't so definitive that people are telling women to steer clear of Reclast, but it was sorta creepy to read a Novartis flack spinning the bad news: "Doctors made available by Merck and Novartis said the side effect could be a statistical fluke or just a product of aging."

The next story grabbed me a little too close to home. Last week, I found myself toasting at a table of six goofy-footed southpaws, including three close friends, my two daughters and me -- now it seems we're all headed for an early grave. According to a new study in Epidemiology, left-handed women are more likely to die than right-handed women, for any cause, but especially of cancer and cerebrovascular disease (damage to an artery in the brain or one supplying blood to the brain).

Two years ago, another study found female lefties also have 2.4 times the risk of breast cancer compared with right-handed women. Actually, the outlook for left-handers -- men or women -- has never been rosy, though there has been little consensus on why. One stat claims that despite the fact that one in 10 children is a lefty, they constitute only 1 percent of those 80 and older. Hard to know if the disappearing-southpaw phenomenon is because we're dropping like flies from biological deficiencies or if older people were subjected to more pressure to switch hands. As for why we gauche chicks are at higher risk for everything, researchers offer little more than theories about prenatal trauma and exposure to testosterone.

Every day there's one of those "ignorance isn't bliss" stories. Today's study from Oxford University (and reported by Physorg) certainly got me. Researchers found that the vast majority of women don't know that the highest risk factor for breast cancer is for women over 80. The results of the study, which found that only 0.7 percent knew that women over 80 were at the highest risk, are being blamed on two factors: the media, which focuses on young women with breast cancer, and the fact that women over 70 are not referred for breast cancer screening.

I guess I'm not surprised we're at a higher risk for just about everything past the age of 80 -- but the health concerns of octogenarians aren't foremost in my mind. With my gaucheness I'll be glad to hit 80 with or without diseased breasts.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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