True or false?
False, false, false, false. Surprised? You may even have used some of these numbers to promote a program or make a point during a class. The truth is, many of the health statistics out there are extrapolations, rough estimates, and sometimes outright misstatements.
Take prostate cancer: 1 in 6 men is a common statistic in the popular press. Put another way, however, if you’re 40 your chance of developing prostate cancer in the next 10 years is about 1 in 1000; in 20 years it’s 1 in 100. That’s less than the chance of developing lung cancer. Even if you live to 70, your chance of getting any cancer (including prostate) is only 1 in 20.
Why the exaggerations?
So what’s the harm? Statistics can dull the message. The flood of data on heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, depression, obesity, diabetes, etc. glazes over the mind. We’re too focused on the fact 100% of us will die of something. Instead, the message should be this: Most of us start life pretty healthy and can expect to stay that way if we adopt a few healthy habits.
Statistics have their place. But rather than focus on the negative — the risk of developing or dying from a disease — highlight the positive:
When you do use statistics, try to convey them in an encouraging light. For example, although breast cancer is a major cause of death, mortality rates have actually gone down in the last 2 decades as a result of better screening and treatment techniques.
We’ve known for some time that scare tactics don’t work. Alarming data won’t motivate people into taking positive steps to improve health. Messages of hope, opportunity, and growth are more likely to inspire, because we can feel the possibilities. It’s easier to see how doing something good for ourselves can enhance our life today than avoid a potentially negative consequence in 20 or 30 years.
Take some time this week to review your promotions and program materials to see how you can change negative statistics into positive, affirming messages of hope and health.