Want to know your risk of cancer? Heart attack? Stroke? Diabetes? Osteoporosis? An Internet quiz run by Harvard claims to be a virtual crystal ball. The site (www.yourdiseaserisk.harvard.edu/hccpquiz.pl?func=home) was expanded from an earlier version that assessed cancer risk only.
The Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention, which sponsors the site, aims to educate the public about health habits shown to curb risk. More than half of cancer cases and four-fifths of heart disease cases, it says, could be prevented by such habits as exercising more, improving diet and not smoking.
The site's strong suit is in helping users identify unhealthy habits. I got kudos for not smoking but was admonished to eat more whole grains. The site also links to the peer-reviewed report on which cancer risk calculations are based.
Harvard admits the site's predictive power is less accurate for those under 40. Older people may have problems, too. Despite warnings from my mother's doctor about her blood pressure and cholesterol, the site found her disease risk "very much below average." Ditto for my 42-year-old husband, who has a heart condition.
"These are just estimates," said Hank Dart, the site's project manager. "The real bonus is, you get to see what risk factors you can change." But so far, only the cancer questions have been compared with other cancer-risk models. Still, Dart said, "We wouldn't put [the quiz] up if we thought it was totally off."