Health NW: Evaluating your health risks

<center>Kathryn B. Brown, FNP</center>

The news media often plays up warnings about health risks. Most warnings are based on the newest exotic disease to appear: mad cow disease, the avian flu, SARS and West Nile virus. Every time the television network news hypes a disease, viewers across the nation have something new to worry about.

Fortunately, most of us are at an extremely low risk of ever acquiring these diseases. Unfortunately, we tend to spend time worrying about them rather than about health risks that are more likely to affect our health, such as poor diets and lack of exercise.

"Risk: A Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You" was published in 2002. The authors, David Ropeik and George Gray, are from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. They gathered scientific information about many health hazards and analyzed the risks to human health.

Ropeik and Gray define risk as "the probability that exposure to a hazard will lead to a negative consequence." There are two parts to their risk analysis. One is the likelihood of exposure to the hazard. The other is the consequences in terms of severity and number of victims.

For example, Americans have a high likelihood of being in motor vehicle crashes, since most of us are exposed to this risk on a daily basis. The consequences of being in a motor vehicle crash are in the medium range (some are killed, some have no injuries, many have moderate but not life-threatening injuries).

The authors point out that our fears of certain risks often don't match the facts. We tend to worry about new risks, such as mad cow disease, rather than old risks, such as food poisoning. We worry more about man-made, such as radiation from cellular phones, than natural risks, such as radiation from the sun. The evidence shows that we are at much higher risk of food poisoning than of mad cow disease. Sun exposure causes more than a million cases of cancer and eye damage each year, whereas the threat of health problems from cell phones is incredibly low.

In general, we feel more fearful when we are passengers in an airplane, and feel less afraid when we are in control in the driver's seat of a car, even though our risk of death in a motor vehicle crash is much higher than the risk of death in an airplane crash.

Also, dying in a frightening and gruesome way worries us more than dying in a less awful way. For example, people swimming in the ocean worry more about a shark attack than drowning, even though death by drowning is much more likely.

Adults are more afraid of risks to their children than of risks to themselves. Teenagers tend to see themselves as immune to harm, so they may engage in risky behavior - alcohol and drug use, reckless driving, unprotected sex - without acknowledging the risk involved.

There are actions you can take to decrease your risk of death and disease. These include the obvious: don't smoke, don't abuse alcohol or drugs, don't drive while intoxicated, exercise daily, use seat belts and wear sunscreen. Some people try to decrease their risk of disease even further by eating only organically grown food.

There are many risks you can't directly control, such as ozone depletion and the threat of terrorism. You can't control how other people drive, or prevent them from talking on a cell phone while driving.

If you are a worrier, I recommend Ropeik and Gray's book. It will help you focus on true risks to your health, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to

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