Many years ago there was a song titled "Dream," and the words went something like this: "Dream when you're feeling blue; dream and they may come true; things never are as bad as they seem; so dream, dream, dream." At least that's the way I remember the first stanza. But the line I want to emphasize is "things never are as bad as they seem." Too many of us have a tendency to overreact to situations without really taking stock of what has occurred. There's another expression: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you simply don't understand the situation." There are all kinds of ways to look at life situations, and simply throwing out scary statistics to an unsuspecting public seems to be a popular one these days. Let me explain.
What captured my attention was an article in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal titled "Fright by the numbers: Alarming disease data are frequently flawed." We all read the newspapers and watch television, and some of the things we hear can't help but upset us. The Journal's examples are typical. One in eight American women will get breast cancer. One in five American men will get prostate cancer. We're told 2 million Americans are manic-depressive and another 2 million are schizophrenic. Add to these statistics projections that at least 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, 12 million have asthma, another 4 million have Alzheimer's disease and one in three are obese. Dwelling on such stats could really heighten our fears, but maybe an explanation about what's behind the numbers needs to be explored.
One of the key reasons we seem to be continually bombarded with alarming health statistics is because most disease advocacy groups are trying, so to speak, to put their best foot forward. If, for instance, they can throw out alarmingly high numbers, observers say it can get them and their organizations more notoriety and maybe even more research money. John Allen Paulos, a mathematics professor and author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, puts it in perspective in the Journal article: "Any group that's lobbying for money is going to try to maximize the number of deaths from their particular malady. Then the numbers are often stated badly, without context, definition and how they're arrived at."
Prostate cancer is a good example. Time magazine recently had a cover story that claimed one in five men will get the disease. However, if looked at in a more realistic manner, the numbers are a little less ominous. For instance, if you're 40 years old now, your chance of getting prostate cancer in the next 10 years is one in 1,000. Looked at over the next 20 years, it's one in 100, which according to the Journal is better than your chance of getting lung cancer. Breast cancer data can be just as scary, with some experts predicting one of every eight women will contract the disease during their lifetimes. But that tells only half the story, according to the Journal. The fact is mortality rates for breast cancer have decreased in recent years. Adds Lawrence Garfinkel, a consultant for the American Cancer Society: "It's much better to talk about the risk of developing prostate or breast cancer in the next 10 or 20 years." With new detection methods and the development of high-tech drugs over the next few years, there's no question death rates from both those cancers will continue to decline, improving the statistics even more.
Remember that context, definition and accuracy are critical when discussing any disease, which is why keeping everything in perspective is so important. No matter what we're told the numbers mean, most of us will live happy, healthy lives, and that's definitely something to look forward to.
Charles S. Lauer