Weighing the Risks of Contracting an Exotic Disease

Are you terrified you might get mad cow disease? Did the news that some bags of greens contained E. coli make you swear off spinach salads for life? Does the word SARS send shivers down your spine?

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. A number of factors may lead us to the wrong view of our risks, experts say. 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.

“How people think and feel affects the decisions they make and ultimately influences their health and well-being,” says Peter A. Ubel, M.D., a behavioral specialist in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Often, people choose a course of action not by rationally weighing risks versus benefits, but instead by focusing on strong emotions, gut feelings, or social pressures and expectations.”

Nearly twice as many U.S. women die of 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. The journal Circulation reported in 2006 that such women increased physical activity, lost weight, stopped smoking, ate healthier diets and urged 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?

“For many diseases, we now have solid scientific evidence about people’s risk, or likelihood, of getting the disease. This is based on characteristics such as age, gender, family history, or level of physical activity,” says Paul Han, M.D., of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. Computer programs can work out disease risk based on people’s risk factors.

But scientists don’t know all the causes of diseases like cancer, he adds. “These programs cannot determine whether any single person will get cancer or not. They can really only predict the total number of people in a population that will develop cancer.”

Dr. Ubel believes the best way to prevent illness is to “do the things that we all know are basically good for us.” That way, you’re “covering all bases.”

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 your 10-year risk of having a heart attack? To use this tool, you must know your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure (the top number), and whether you take medication for high blood pressure. At http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov, click on  “Health Assessment Tools,” then click on “10-Year Heart Attack Risk Calculator.”

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