Aug. 31, 2011 at 9:28 AM ET
Back in the day, our grandparents turned to their family doctor with questions about their health. These days, we turn to someone much closer -- our computers.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, eight in ten Internet users look online for health information. But can Googling our symptoms actually provide not just us -- but medical researchers -- with crucial information about disease and its causes?
Dr. Benjamin Breyer, an assistant professor of urology at the University of California San Francisco, says yes.
"Search engines can help us see the patterns," says Breyer, lead author of a new study in the journal Urology entitled "Use of Google Insights for Search to Track Seasonal and Geographic Kidney Stone Incidence in the United States." "There are all types of phenomena in the environment and compared to search data, we can see if any of these things influence disease."
In the study, Breyer took kidney stone patient data from hospitals around the country and compared it with people's Google searches for kidney stone-related terms.
"We looked at the data and lo and behold, the searches mirrored the known regional and temporal data," he says.
In other words, peoples' searches for information on kidney stones -- which affect 13 percent of men and 7 percent of women in the U.S. -- mirrored previous findings that show kidney stones to be more prevalent in the summer and in the so-called "stone belt": the Southeast.
"It's partly related to dehydration," says Breyer regarding the summer-stone connection. "People are more active in the summer, plus it's hotter and they're sweating more. That precipitates the minerals that compose kidney stones."
As for the "kidney stone belt," Breyer says this could be temperature-related and/or be linked to the higher levels of obesity found in the region.
"It's one of those diseases that's multifactorial," he says.
But kidney stones aren't the only disease affected by the seasons, he says.
"Other diseases have temporal incidence," says Breyer. "Having a heart attack is more common in the winter, probably due to the effects of the cold on vasculature."
Breyer hopes that in the future, search data will allow researchers to explore new ideas about possible links between illnesses and changes in our surroundings.
"We can potentially collect data that's input from millions and millions of people in real time all over the country and the world and use that to study disease," he says.
As for those concerned about a kidney stone attack in this summer of sizzling hot temperatures (and considering how painful these puppies can be, who wouldn't be?), Breyer recommends drinking lots of water and avoiding salt -- not just from the shaker but from processed foods and high-sodium restaurant meals.
"Staying hydrated and avoiding salt is the main adage for kidney stone prevention," he says. "People who eat a lot of salt are more prone to forming stones -- and to repeat stones."