Story Highlights• "We're afraid of the wrong things," doctor says
• Woman's risk of getting heart disease: 1 in 42
• Mad cow disease risk: 1 in 10 billion (you have a better chance at Powerball)
By Laurel Naversen Geraghty
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What's scarier than mad cow disease? Nothing, really -- except illnesses that are 10 billion times more likely to hurt you. Think about it this way: Your risk of getting mad cow is much lower than your odds of winning the Powerball lottery. In short, it's not likely to happen. What could happen? In her lifetime, the average woman has a 1 in 2 chance of developing osteoporosis and a 1 in 3 chance of heart disease.
"We're afraid of the new, the mysterious," says Marc Siegel, M.D., a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University Medical School who wrote "False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear." "But we're afraid of the wrong things."
Want to put your fears in their place? Here's help: We compared your risks of developing certain illnesses this year to the odds of some quirky scenarios -- and found plenty of good news. Keep in mind, too, that if you take certain measures (you know, exercise, eat right), you'll change your odds ... for a lifetime. (Health.com: Risks for common serious diseases )
Your risk of heart disease: 1 in 42
Odds of Condolezza Rice becoming president in 2008: 1 in 50
About 2.9 million women will be hospitalized for a heart disease--related problem this year, but the vast majority will be elderly people whose risk factors are relatively high. Many more younger people will dutifully lower their risks because heart disease is one of the most preventable ailments on the planet. "The key is lifestyle," says Lynne M. Kirk, past president of the American College of Physicians.
Real-world advice: Hit the gym; walk; load up on fruit, vegetables, and fiber; and quit smoking (or don't start). These simple acts are enough to lower your risk by a factor of six. Caveat: If you blow them off, your risks will go up fast as you age. The lifetime risk for the average 40-year-old woman (the one who needs to lose weight, exercise more, and eat better) is higher than 1 in 2! (Health.com: Keep your heart healthy)
Your risk of osteoporosis: 1 in 101
Odds that Dobby, the beloved house elf, will die in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows": 1 in 100
The risk of an osteoporosis-linked hip fracture is higher than the risk of developing breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer combined. Shocked? Osteoporosis is that common. Now the good news: Drugs for people at risk -- or those who have osteoporosis -- help limit fractures by actually helping build new bone. And if you need surgery for a fractured joint, you can now have a just-approved procedure called hip resurfacing (the bone inside the hip joint is reshaped and a protective chrome cap is inserted on top) instead of a hip replacement. Physicians say the caps last longer than traditional hip replacements and offer greater stability and range of motion after surgery.
Real-world advice: You've heard it before, but it works: Lift weights to keep bones strong, and load up on calcium (more than 90 percent of women do not get enough) and vitamin D, which boost bone mass and prevent bone loss. Supplements? You don't need them if your diet includes plenty of dairy, broccoli, almonds, and fortified foods and drinks like orange juice.
Your risk of breast cancer: 1 in 680
Odds of drawing a full house in a poker hand: 1 in 700
It's always hard to accept when someone you know gets breast cancer. And because a woman's lifetime risk is 1 in 8, it seems to happen a lot. So it may seem callous to compare breast cancer to a card game, especially now that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, has made us even more aware of how tenacious the disease can be. But here's the truth: In 2007, breast cancer will be diagnosed in only 178,000 of the 122 million adult women in the United States -- 0.1 percent. Plus, breast-cancer rates are actually dropping by 2 percent a year. And if the disease is found early, odds are you're going to live a long time. Nearly 90 percent of women who get breast cancer are still alive five years later.
Real-world advice: Cut your breast-cancer risk by sipping no more than one alcoholic drink a day (alcohol, by far, is the easiest risk factor to change). Women who have more than two drinks daily increase their risk by 21 percent, according to a study from the British Journal of Cancer. Carolyn D. Runowicz, M.D., past president of the American Cancer Society and a breast-cancer survivor, says scientific evidence also suggests you should exercise a few times a week, maintain an ideal body weight (a body-mass index of about 19 to 25), breastfeed your babies, have yearly mammograms starting at age 40, and avoid hormone therapy. (Health.com: Making sense of medical tests)
Your risk of E. coli : 1 in 4,100
Odds you'll name your daughter Maude: 1 in 4,300
We doubt that there are any women named Maude in your family or that you'll get sick from E. coli. Of course, it's not impossible: Recent outbreaks of a particularly dangerous form (most E. coli is not harmful) -- which can cause stomach pain, diarrhea, kidney failure, or even death -- were traced to contaminated spinach sold in salad bags and lettuce served in fast-food restaurants. In fact, more than half of all outbreaks of foodborne illness are linked to restaurants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, E. coli is probably rarer than you think. The spinach outbreak, the largest in years, resulted in 199 cases and three deaths (out of more than 300 billion meals eaten annually in the United States). E. coli infections are on the decline, too, perhaps because of testing that's done before food is eaten.
Real-world advice: The bacteria come primarily from farm animals (and veggie plants fertilized with manure). To avoid getting sick, cook meat to at least 160 degrees, wash meat thermometers between temperature tests, and rinse fruits and vegetables. Also, wash your hands, knives, and cutting boards with soap and hot water, and rinse well. (Health.com: Beware of this risky stomach bug )
Your risk of ovarian cancer: 1 in 5,440
Odds of an asteroid hitting the Earth: 1 in 5,000
You may know of someone who died from ovarian cancer, the ninth-most common cancer in women and the disease that took comedian Gilda Radner's life. What you may not know: Scientists are working feverishly to develop simple blood and urine tests to detect the disease earlier than ever (they could become available in the next couple of years). That's great because ovarian cancer is rarely caught early; less than half of women who learn they have it survive for five years.
Real-world advice: The risk factors aren't that easy to erase, but you can still help yourself. First, know the symptoms. New research suggests warning signs are recent and persistent abdominal pain, bloating, or a really full feeling more than a dozen days in a month. Second, keep in mind that risk seems to be linked to hormone exposure around the time you ovulate -- so using birth control pills (or having children, of course) reduces your chances. Beyond that, it gets murky. One big study suggests drinking one to two cups of black tea every day might protect you. Experts don't recommend routine tests (they don't seem to save lives), but screening may be right if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. If you do, then ask about a blood test known as CA-125 (but keep in mind that false positives aren't unusual).
Your risk of mad cow disease: 1 in 10 billion
Odds of winning the Powerball grand prize: 1 in 146 million
The disease has never been diagnosed in a human in the United States, according to the CDC, and only three cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow) have popped up in American cows. (They were caught before they entered the food supply.) In theory, it's possible that if humans eat beef damaged by BSE, they may develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) -- a fatal brain disorder that often lies dormant for a decade before symptoms appear. But even in the United Kingdom, home to 98 percent of all BSE cases linked to beef (or blood transfusions from a person who's been exposed to the tainted meat), the CDC estimates the risk for humans is just 1 in every 10 billion servings of beef. A few years ago there was worry about supplements and cosmetics made with certain cattle parts, but the Food and Drug Administration stopped the use of those parts.
Real-world advice: Still concerned? Don't eat beef. (P.S.: You don't need extra protection from mad cow, but, if you're wondering, cooking beef until it's well done won't make a difference.)