Friday, March 13, 2009

Quantifying risk

How does one tackle all of the health risk data we are constantly being bombarded with? According to some experts, including Michael Blastland at the BBC, very carefully. Blastland has devised a nice little graphic in the middle of the article to explain the difference between percentage chance and real chance.

For instance, how does one reconcile these competing statistics: drinking alcoholic increases a woman's risk of breast cancer by 12% and reduces heart disease by 17%. So, should a woman drink alcohol, given she will increase one bad while decreasing another?

Once we take into account the prevalence of these diseases, she definitely should. Since a woman only has a 10 in 100 chance of getting breast cancer, the overall effect of drinking is to increase this to 11 in 100. But 32 in 100 women have heart disease, which means drinking decreases this to 27 in 100. Drinking takes 1 life in 100, but saves 5.

(Of course, this calculation is assuming these numbers hold for individuals, family propensity to disease not withstanding.)

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