What are you most afraid of? Maybe it’s heights, flying, or being impacted by an act of terrorism. These are pretty common fears, and yet, their actual risk to our wellbeing is disproportionately small. As human beings, we’ve evolved in many ways, but the brain’s ability to accurately perceive risk has yet to catch up to our modern society. Imagine a man preparing to board a plane. He’s anxious, so he has a cigarette to calm his nerves. In reality, it is not the plane, but the cigarette in his hand that represents the greatest threat to his survival.
How the Brain Miscalculates Perceived vs Actual Risk
Fear is rooted deeply in factors such as control, memory, and the potential to experience immediate harm. Catastrophic events, for instance, make for big news despite the fact that they are statistically very unlikely to happen to any of us. Nonetheless, as we watch continuous coverage of disastrous happenings around the globe, our brains form memories around them and perceive them as commonplace occurrences that could pose an immediate threat. Likewise, we are more fearful of things which could kill us right away, such as a car accident, over those which could take many years, such as smoking.
The chart below from OurWorldInData.org illustrates this phenomenon by reviewing user's Google searches and media reports versus what people actually die from:
Why Heart Disease Should Trump Your Irrational Fears
Take your other fears out of the equation and focus only on those which could threaten your health. Which comes to mind? Most will respond generally with “cancer,” and knowing what we do about the brain, the response makes sense. After all, we are exposed to cancer the most through the media and awareness campaigns. Our minds quickly begin to believe that this is our greatest health risk, but we’re getting it all wrong.
No matter your gender, race or where you live, we all have one thing in common – we are most likely to die from heart disease. In the U.S. alone, it accounts for about 610,000 deaths annually, more than all forms of cancer combined. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Heart disease accounts for 1 out of every 4 deaths
- Someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 42 seconds
- Approximately 84 million Americans are living with some form of heart disease
- About 20% of heart disease deaths are directly attributable to smoking
Cut Your Heart Disease Risk
We are not able to avoid all risk, but we can take steps to avoid the most significant threat to our health: heart disease. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle can dramatically reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Start by getting some of the most common risk factors such as weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure under control. Exercise regularly, eat a heart healthy diet, and kick the smoking habit for good.
Finally, schedule an appointment with a cardiologist to help you assess your personal level of risk and to connect you with programs and professionals who can aid your efforts. Together, we can develop a plan to address appropriate fears and leave the irrational ones behind.