C-Force: Are We Worrying About the Right Things When It Comes to Health?

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Do you worry about your health? Who doesn't? According to Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, senior faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing, a pivotal question to ask is: Are you worrying about the right things? "While harm can befall us in many ways, some of our worries are not very likely to occur," he says.

For example, take the fear of being struck by lightning. "In the US, lightning strikes kill about 25 people each year. Annually, the risk for the average person is less than one in a million," Shmerling says. How about the thought of dying in a plane crash? "The yearly risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about one in 11 million. Of course, the risk is even lower if you never fly, and higher if you regularly fly on small planes in bad weather with inexperienced pilots. By comparison, the average yearly risk of dying in a car accident is approximately 1 in 5,000."

According to Shmerling, "analyzing online search topics can tell us a lot about our health worries." In examining the most common Google health searches in 2023, the top two searches were "How long is strep throat contagious?" and "How contagious is strep throat?" Cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and COVID weren't in the top five.

"Perhaps the lack of overlap between leading causes of death and most common online health-related searches isn't surprising," Shmerling says. "Younger folks drive more searches and may not have heart disease, cancer, or stroke at top of mind. In addition, online searches might reflect day-to-day concerns. ... And death may not be the most immediate health outcome of interest."

Like a lot of folks, they may have missed or passed over a recent American Medical Association report: "Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke. ... More than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke every year." It is a medical emergency that demands swift action, says the AMA, "the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major cause of long-term disability for adults." But don't forget, "it is preventable and treatable."

Also likely missed was a statement by Dr. Brent Egan, an internist and vice president of cardiovascular disease prevention at the AMA in Greenville, South Carolina, warning that "we're seeing strokes increase in younger people because of the increase in risk factors with obesity, hypertension and diabetes."


As I reported here in the past, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "life expectancy rose to 77.5 years on average in 2022, a slight increase of 1.1 years from 2021." As reported by USA Today, "Although life expectancy has slightly improved, it continues to remain below its peak of 78.9 years of a decade ago. The U.S. life expectancy also falls far behind many other comparable countries."

As Shmerling says, "Most of us can safely worry less about catching something from a toilet seat or shark attacks. Instead, take steps to reduce the risks you face from our biggest health threats ... (and) think about common causes of poor health. Then take measures to reduce your risk. Moving more and adding healthy foods to your meals is a great start."

As Dr. Amit Shah, an internist and geriatrician with Mayo Clinic in Arizona, explains to USA Today, "up to 25% of longevity is genetic," while the rest is "in our control" through factors like diet and exercise.

In a recent New York Times investigative report on aging, Dana G. Smith writes, "Scientists are working to understand the biological causes of aging in the hope of one day being able to offer tools to slow or stop its visible signs and, more important, age-related diseases. These underlying mechanisms are often called 'the hallmarks of aging.'"


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