If you feel overwhelmed by the number of health studies you read about, you’re not alone. Scientific publication grows about 6% a year, and doubles every 13 years, according to the National Institutes of Health. On top of that, the claims are often exaggerated and sometimes contradict each other.
Still, you can see through the hype and understand medical news without having to take a graduate course in statistics. Study these quick tips for making sense out of health research, and applying the findings to your own life.
Tips for Understanding Health Studies
1. Reframe the numbers. Health risks may sound more alarming than they really are. Reporters write headlines that will grab your attention, and even scientists can feel pressured to announce a breakthrough. Saying 1 in 20 adults has a certain health issue sounds more dramatic than saying 95% do not, even though the meaning is the same.
2. Draw comparisons. To appreciate how big the risk is for any health outcome, liken it to another event. You may have a greater chance of winning the lottery than contracting an exotic illness.
3. Shorten your timeframe. If you listed all the challenges you’ve faced since birth, it would sound pretty daunting. Contemplating 10 years at a time rather than lifetime risk may feel more manageable.
4. Assess the relevance. However serious the condition, you need to know if it’s likely to affect you. Maybe you’re an elderly female, and the study sample was adolescent males.
5. Focus on starting risk. Starting risk is a complicated but essential factor that’s sometimes overlooked. Keep in mind that the sicker a patient is, the more they’ll benefit from any treatment.
6. Look for patient outcomes. You probably care more about eliminating symptoms that bother you rather than just lowering your cholesterol. Look for results that matter to you.
7. Consider the source. Naturally, pharmaceutical companies fund most drug studies. They may still be high quality research, but they’re also trying to sell their products.
8. Think critically. Healthy skepticism can help you avoid the inconvenience and expense of unnecessary treatment. Calculate your risk and weigh the benefits of any intervention. Be cautious about preliminary findings and observational studies.
Tips for Taking Action based on Health Studies
1. Establish priorities. What health choices would have the greatest impact on your wellbeing? Maybe you need to quit smoking or manage a chronic condition. Make the best use of your time and energy by seeing what credible, peer-reviewed journals and government sources have to say on those subjects.
2. Note the side effects. Practically every drug or procedure comes with a potential downside as well. Consider how severe the side effects are, and how likely you are to experience them.
3. Change your lifestyle. On the other hand, many lifestyle adjustments are powerful, far-reaching, and 100% safe. Let scientists encourage you to eat your vegetables, exercise daily, and wash your hands frequently.
4. Talk with your doctor. Your physician and the rest of your health team can help you sort out how any individual study pertains to someone with your background and values. Ask questions and share your concerns.
5. Make your own decisions. Remember that medical studies give you options. Reasonable adults will reach different conclusions about how they want to respond to those findings. You may decide to seek aggressive treatment or prefer a wait-and-see approach.
Make sense out of health statistics, and use the latest medical information to enhance your own wellbeing. With a little practice, you can benefit from health studies instead of feeling confused by them.