Prevention Magazine . July, 2006
How to let go of fear and keep your life moving forward.
Every day in the paper, on the radio, or in your in-box, you’ll find it: Another story warning of your chances of getting sick, not getting pregnant, divorcing, or being struck down by a freak accident, according to some new study. We’re an alarmist culture, addicted to calculating the odds of being blindsided by disaster—and many of these messages are targeted at women.
When I divorced shortly before my 50th birthday, a friend lamented that statistically I was unlikely to ever find love again. Most men in my age range were either married, gay, dead, or out chasing nubile young things in the hope of propping up their drooping testosterone levels.
Such depressing “facts”—that 1 in 3 first marriages ends within 10 years, and that men looking for a mate are seeking much younger women—are enough to make you want to go to bed and pull the covers over your head. Yet as a happily remarried older woman, I’m proof that you don’t have to be a statistic.
As Mark Twain observed, there are three kinds of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The latter are often taken out of context, made up to add punch to an argument, or are just plain wrong. Furthermore, even if you’re a physician, they’re hard to interpret. One study found that 146 doctors given a test of basic statistical knowledge answered only 40% of the questions correctly.
Numbers are even harder for the rest of us to decode. For example, many a woman can cite the terrifying statistic that her lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 8. The flip side is that she faces most of this risk after age 75. This doesn’t take the scare out of the 1-in-8 figure, but it does put it in perspective. Or look at the statistical reality that miscarriage rates rise to 35% at age 42 and 50% by age 46—a “fact” mentioned to a 30-something childless friend by her well-meaning but insensitive gynecologist.
He forgot to acknowledge the other side of the coin: Women over 40 are bearing children in record numbers, thanks to new reproductive technologies. Here are some suggestions when dire statistics threaten to ruin your day:
Do something—then let go
If you’re convinced that a statistic is valid, and that heeding it will improve the quality of your life, take positive action. When my friend Sandy read that 52% of people 55 and older have saved less than $50,000 for retirement—and that many would need $1 million or even more to retire comfortably—she decided to beef up her savings plan.
She made the most of the statistic, squarely facing her financial challenges—then she quit worrying. On the other hand, if you are older and have little money saved, don’t panic. Many people work long after their 65th birthday (Mike Wallace just retired from 60 Minutes at age 88!) or have found solutions, such as reverse mortgages, to make their savings go further. Letting go of angst frees up energy for creativity—and for enjoying life now.
Don’t let statistics become a self-fulfilling prophecy
As an expert in mind-body medicine, I know that beliefs often influence our lives in very practical, embodied ways. Here’s an example: Women are now focusing more on careers and having children later in life. The catch is that by age 45, 87% of couples are infertile. And the unwritten catch-22 is that worrying about your aging eggs reduces fertility even more, so your attitude can help make the statistical probability into a reality.
Researchers at Harvard studying women who had been trying to conceive for an average of 3 years found that after a stress-reduction program, 42% conceived viable pregnancies within 6 months. In another study, women who had been trying to conceive were randomly assigned to either a stress-reduction group or a support group, or received no psychological intervention.
Within 1 year, 55% of the women in the stress-reduction group and 54% of the women in the support group had conceived and given birth. By comparison, only 20% of the women who had no treatment conceived.
Remind yourself that life is uncertain
One of the wealthiest young men in the country, a friend of mine, died suddenly after he slipped on black ice on his way out of his dentist’s office. None of us knows the course of our life—either the unexpected blessings or the unforeseen hardships.
Our fascination with statistics, in part, grows out of the desire to control our destiny, an endeavor doomed to failure. The ability to change what you can (your diet, exercise, and thinking patterns) and to let go of what you can’t (your destiny) is the hallmark of good coping.
Refuse to buy into scary reports that are anecdotal
A single report of a cell-phone user dying of brain cancer started a wave of terror that reportedly caused Motorola stock to tumble 20% in a week. But just because two things occur together doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. About 6 out of 100,000 Americans develop brain cancer annually, and some of them also happen to use cell phones. That’s called coincidence, not connection. Pay attention to future studies about cell phones—but don’t panic over newly minted health claims that aren’t based on careful research. Bathing your cells in stress hormones is one health risk that you can avoid.
Weigh the risks and benefits to your own life
Scientific knowledge is constantly evolving. For example, the pendulum has swung from support of hormone therapy (HT) to mistrust of it, and back toward a reconsideration of its possible benefits. As a woman and a scientist, I’ve concluded that, at some point, you have to look at the data and decide for yourself.
Although I accept the fact that estrogen may increase my risk of blood clots and stroke, I also know that without it, I simply cannot sleep. And sleeplessness ruins my quality of life right now, whatever the future may hold.
At the end of the day, statistics are probabilities—not guarantees of a life without challenges or evidence that all is lost. We all know of people with cancer who beat the odds, and others who had everything going for them and died anyway. The one indisputable statistic is that the human death rate has never changed. It’s one per person. What you do with your magnificent journey is unpredictable—and ultimately what matters most.
How to put stats in perspective
- Meet an odds-beater Diagnosed with a serious illness? Arrange to talk with someone who has the same problem and is coping well. The same advice goes for women struggling with infertility, relationship, or money issues.
- Research your stat Numbers are misleading. The more you understand the quixotic nature of scientific evidence, the more powerful you’ll feel.
- Do your best to beat the odds Eating right may—or may not—prevent chronic disease. Saving 15% of every paycheck can’t guarantee financial solvency long-term—but it will help. Either way, these simple preventive steps will give you the peace of mind that comes from saying, “I did all I could.”