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Putting Disease Risk into Perspective

Are you terrified you might get mad cow disease? Does news of E. coli outbreaks make you swear off spinach salads for life? 

True, a few people will get those illnesses. But most of us never will. The things most likely to make us sick seem less dramatic: heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, to name just some of them.

Even when we think about these real threats, we may conclude our risk is far higher or lower than it is.

Risk perception

The way we gauge the peril a given disorder poses is called risk perception. Experts say that a number of factors may lead us to the wrong view of our risks. Among them:

  • Bad information and lack of knowledge

  • Our own experiences and biases

  • Groundless but deep-seated fears

  • Trouble grasping complex statistics

If you think your risk for a certain disease is higher than it is and you focus solely on that disease, you may ignore other dangers. You could be less likely to make changes that could aid your health.

Nearly twice as many U.S. women die from heart disease and stroke than from all forms of cancer combined. Three in five women know heart disease is their top health threat. Yet breast cancer is the disease women fear most.

As women learn of their heart disease risk, though, many take action. Such women increase physical activity, lose weight, stop smoking, eat healthier diets and urge relatives to do the same. The moral: Knowing the enemy is the first step in winning the war.

Reacting to hype

Although the media can help, frenzied coverage may sway even the most level-headed of us, leading to panic about the risks of a drug or treatment. The hype can make us greatly overestimate the odds that we’ll develop a given side effect, symptom, or disorder.

Stay calm and assess the import and reliability of the information behind the headlines. If it’s based on a study, how well was the study designed? How many participants were involved? How conclusive were the results?

If you use the Web to learn more, choose reputable sites, such as those of the American Cancer Society or other national groups and government agencies. Ask your doctor if the information is relevant to you. If it is, how might it change your treatment or lifestyle?

One thing is certain: The best way to stay healthy and avoid disease is to take care of yourself. So stay at a healthy weight, eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet, exercise, quit smoking, limit alcohol intake, and track cholesterol and blood pressure levels. If you’re at high risk for a certain disease, take preventive steps that focus on it. That can raise your chances of staying healthy.

Gauge your risk

What is your 10-year risk of having a heart attack? To use this tool from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, you should know your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure (the top number), and whether you take medication for high blood pressure.