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Nutella, bacon, roads: It's time to stop being scared by health stories

The headlines are irresistible: bacon causes cancer. Nutella causes cancer. Living by a road causes dementia. But there's a problem: while the stories are about legitimate scientific studies, the telling can cause unnecessary panic. Journalist Ben Chu tells us how to properly interpret the news.
Bacon is just one of the things science tells us can kill you. But what most of us forget, Ben Chu says, is that we are all at risk of disease even without bacon, or other killers. (hoosieragtoday.com)
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There are three things you should consider before you get caught up by a health scare headline. 

You know the ones, those dramatic news stories that tell you something you love will inevitably kill you. 

Bacon. Nutella. Your home at the heart of your city

A recent report on the dangers of palm oil led to concerns over Nutella. (Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia Commons)

These stories are important, says Ben Chu. So don't dismiss them. But do apply some critical thinking. 

Chu, the economics editor at Britian's The Independent, wrote a guide to interpreting health care stories after a frustrating experience reading coverage of a recent Canadian study connecting dementia to living close to a busy road. 

"I would stress, there's nothing wrong with the science, most of the time, on these stories. It's a perfectly respectable published work, and properly researched stuff. It's the way it's presented in the actual media. And my big problem with it, is that there's very little context to these stories."

Ben Chu is the Economics Editor at Britain's The Independent. (Submitted by Ben Chu. )

According to Chu, in order to have the necessary context, stories about legitimate health studies should contain the following three things. (If they are not included, he suggests you try and find the information before you get worried about your own health.)

  1. The absolute lifetime risk of getting the disease in question. This is how likely anyone is to get it in their lifetime, regardless of circumstance. 
  2. The relative risk of getting the disease. This is the risk if you participate in the behaviour in question (living close to a bsy road, for example). You need to compare this to the absolute risk to determine just how much more at risk you really are. 
  3. The other relevant risks that contribute to the disease. For example, smoking is thought to increase the risk of dementia. So maybe you could quit smoking, before you move away from a busy road. 

If scientists don't explain the context, or media outlets don't include it, or you don't factor it in, there are at least two potential harms according to Chu: first, it could lead to unnecessary worry or anxiety, and ill informed decisions. And second, governments could feel 

A recent Canadian study made a connection between dementia, and living near a busy road. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"The great danger with these health scare stories, is that they create...a sort of chain reaction where people get very worried about them, politicians feel the need to respond to them, and we get bad policy on the back of it, because it's not been fully considered." 

"People get very worried about them, politicians feel the need to respond to them, and we get bad policy on the back of it, because it's not been fully considered." - Ben Chu, The Independent

Chu wants to make clear, however, that these stories are often important news about important research.

Take, for example, the first stories about connections between smoking and lung cancer: "The science was not particularly well-developed, in terms of what carcinogens were, so this was an association rather than a causal study...But, over time the science developed, the link was established, other epidemiological studies proved exactly the same thing," says Chu.

So we shouldn't ignore health scare stories, just because they seem alarming. 

But the information needs to be reported, and interpreted, thoughtfully. 

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