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Top 10 Controversial Health Stories of 2011

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If there's one thing you can say about 2011 from a health point of view, it's that it wasn't boring!
From killer vitamins to scientists flip-flopping on the dangers of cell phones and salt, our heads are spinning as we sort through the headlines.

Here are our picks for the year's most buzz-worthy stories.

1. Are Mammograms and Breast Self-Exams Worth It?
In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said most women don’t need mammograms until age 50. But a pair of studies released in April supported the idea that women in their 40s, especially minority women, should get annual mammograms. The tables turned again in July, when it was revealed that mammograms analyzed with a technology called computer-aided detection aren’t helpful in detecting cancers—only in producing false positives and causing unnecessary biopsies. But in September, researchers announced that both mammograms and breast self-exams are indeed useful for detecting breast cancer, including in younger women. The bottom line? Talk to your doctor.

2. Is Your Multivitamin Killing You?
Mom may have told you to take your vitamins, but a study published in October found that older women who took multivitamins and other dietary supplements—such as iron, folic acid, vitamin B, and zinc—actually had a higher risk of dying earlier. The study showed only an association—not cause and effect—and it didn’t ask the women about underlying health conditions for which they may have been taking the supplements.

3. K2 Synthetic Marijuana Sending Kids to ER
Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. That’s the message doctors hope to send to teenagers smoking K2, a synthetic form of marijuana. In November, the American Association of Poison Control Centers revealed that, since the beginning of 2010, it had received nearly 2,000 reports of people becoming ill (sometimes with life-threatening symptoms) after smoking the herb, which also goes by the names Spice, Yucatan Fire, Genie, and Fire and Ice. Many users are sent to the emergency room with racing hearts, extreme anxiety, and hallucinations.

3. Pregnant Woman Runs Marathon, Gives Birth Hours Later
Race-day spectators watched in awe as Amber Miller crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon in October—and proceeded to go into labor. When she gave birth to a healthy baby hours later, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Was that safe!?” Experts have long recommended exercise during pregnancy, but this takes it to an extreme. (And here’s perhaps the biggest news of all: She still finished before her husband!)

4. Turn Brown Eyes Blue With New Laser
For when colored contacts just aren’t permanent enough, a California company claims its new laser technology can change brown eyes blue. The technology won’t be available in the United States for at least three years, but it’s already sparking questions about genetic identity and family ties. (Eye color is one of the inevitable traits passed down from parents to children.) In November, “Time”’s Healthland blog published a story on why the idea feels “off-color."

5. Barefoot Running Shoes Are Hot
They’ve been hailed as the “real” way to run, to prevent injury and to reverse the harm that regular running shoes with lots of padding under the heel cause to our natural gait. But as more people have jumped on the barefoot-running wagon, researchers have begun to caution about potential injuries caused by switching shoe styles too quickly. These minimalist shoes, which contain little if any padding and encourage runners to land on their mid-foot or forefoot, lack the support and cushioning many runners need, especially if they continue to land on their heels in their new shoes.

6. No TV Before Age 2, Say Pediatricians
The recommendation has been around for a few years, but in October the American Academy of Pediatrics made it official: No television is the best television for children under the 2. Kids instead should be encouraged to think creatively during periods of unstructured “free play,” they said. The announcement was a blow to companies that market educational videos for babies—as well as any parents enjoying a rare moment of peace and quiet!

7. High-Salt Diets Might Kill You—but Low-Salt Diets Might Too
We’ve always been told that too much sodium raises your blood pressure, but a report published in May found that death from cardiovascular problems was 56 percent higher for men who ate the least amount of sodium. Although some people with hypertension should lower their salt intake, experts say, reducing sodium isn’t necessarily good for everyone. To make matters more confusing, a large, 15-year study published in July found that people who eat more sodium and less potassium die sooner of heart problems than those who consume the opposite.

8. Baby Shampoo May Be Toxic
It’s known as the no-tears formula, but Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo should perhaps be recognized for something else: toxic chemicals that are still lurking in some formulas, says the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In November, the watchdog group sent the company a letter urging it to stop using formaldehyde-releasing substances in its popular shampoo brand. Johnson & Johnson responded by saying that it is gradually phasing out such harmful chemicals, but did not comment on this specific product.

9. Cellphones May or May Not Cause Cancer
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in February when a British study found no link between cell phones and brain tumors. But before you can say “OMG”, cancer experts told the World Health Organization in May that cell phones may actually still cause brain cancer. The most recent study on the topic, released in July, found that cell phones don’t seem to pose a cancer risk to kids who use them regularly—but the researchers cautioned that more research is needed.

10. Speech-Slurring Emmy Anchor: Stroke, Drunk, or Migraine?
Reporter Serene Branson’s bizarre telecast live from the Emmys in February made headlines for what she didn’t say: Fumbling her words and uttering nonsensical syllables, she caused news outlets to wonder whether she’d had a stroke on air. Some even questioned whether she was drunk or on drugs. Medical professionals examined Branson after the incident, and doctors revealed in the following days that she had actually suffered a short-term complex migraine.