by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Who’s Lying Now

True or false?

  • 1 in 6 American men will get prostate cancer
  • 1 in 8 American women will get breast cancer
  • 1 in 3 Americans is obese
  • 2 million Americans are manic depressive.

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.

Stretching the Truth

Why the exaggerations?

  • Advocacy groups are competing for the public’s attention and dollars. It’s a lot more compelling to say there’s a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer than to qualify it by saying the average 20-year-old woman has a 1 in 900 chance.
  • Alarming statistics make better headlines. They cause every woman to think: "I or any of my 7 friends will get breast cancer."

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. 

What to Do

Statistics have their place. But rather than focus on the negative — the risk of developing or dying from a disease — highlight the positive:

  • "Most women will never get breast cancer. Now you can decrease your risk even more by …"
  • "The average life expectancy for men is 79 years. Expect more from those years by taking steps to …"
  • "Scientists have learned you can slow the aging process, boost your mood, and enjoy a better quality of life by practicing these 3 things …"

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.

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