Does the endless stream of articles describing new and alarming risks to your health have you feeling anxious? Two of the latest warnings: Common pain relievers raise your risk for heart attacks, and sitting too much can make you more likely to develop cancer.
What to act on and what to ignore? Consumer Reports went to the experts for advice on how to understand your risk and tip the odds in your favor.
When researchers study what affects your chances of health problems, they often look at gender, ethnic background, age and family history.
For example, a strong family history of heart disease may increase your risk. Genes also matter. Women with what’s called the BRCA mutation have a much higher risk of breast cancer than women without it, according to the National Cancer Institute. But 20 to 30 percent of all BRCA carriers never get breast cancer, and most women who do get it don’t even carry those genes.
The kinds of food you eat, the amount of alcohol you consume, sun exposure, whether you smoke, your weight and exercise habits can also affect your risk for a variety of diseases. Even exposure to environmental chemicals or pollution can play a role.
These six strategies will tell how important new findings are for you:
Understand whether they’re based on trustworthy research. Generally, the best research comes from double-blind trials, where people are randomly assigned to either a placebo group or an experimental group. Neither the study’s participants nor its researchers know who is in which group until the study’s end, so there’s less chance for bias. Observational studies, which compare large groups of people with each other, can be useful and help make associations — for example, between coffee consumption and a reduced likelihood of breast cancer — but their findings may not hold up to further scrutiny.
See what you have in common with people who participated in a study. Test-tube and animal studies can sound intriguing, but they may have little to do with you. The more that people in a study resemble you in gender, race, age, health, family history, genetics and lifestyle habits, the more likely any findings will apply to you.
Check whether it’s been published in a respected journal. Research that is published in what’s known as a peer-reviewed journal has been reviewed by experts and meets certain standards. But not all journals are peer-reviewed — some are little more than vanity publications — and all peer-reviewed journals aren’t equal, either. Some, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, are more highly regarded than others.
Follow the money. Some research suggests that funding by medical-device and pharmaceutical companies may have an effect on study results.
Be wary of breakthroughs. If a study is unique, wait until more research has replicated its results. For studies that add to a body of research, find out whether results agree with previous findings or raise new questions.
Find out what your doctor thinks. If it seems that some new research might apply to you, discuss it with your physician.
Cardiovascular disease. Don’t smoke; if you do, quit. Maintain a proper weight, follow a healthful diet to keep your cholesterol within a normal range, drink in moderation and exercise regularly. Those steps will lower your risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which all increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. A daily baby aspirin (81 milligrams) or a regular aspirin (325 milligrams) every other day may also reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Talk with your doctor about whether, based on your age and overall risk profile, you should consider taking aspirin.
Breast cancer. Limit alcohol consumption, stay at a healthful weight and, if you are prescribed hormone therapy, use it for the shortest possible time. Exercising for more than four hours per week may reduce risk, too. Prescription tamoxifen or raloxifene may lower breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women; tamoxifen may do the same in high-risk premenopausal women. Prescription aromatase inhibitors may cut the likelihood of breast cancer in high-risk, post-menopausal women and prevent a recurrence in breast-cancer survivors. Women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation may want to discuss prophylactic mastectomy and/or oophorectomy (ovary removal) with their physicians.
Type 2 diabetes. Lose excess weight and strive to be physically active — even walking five days per week for a half-hour can reduce risk or slow the development of the disease. The medication metformin helps lower elevated blood glucose levels in people with the condition and may delay development of the disease in some people with prediabetes.
Colorectal cancer. Exercise regularly, talk with your doctor about whether you should take a daily aspirin, and limit alcohol. (Three or more daily drinks ups risk.) Having colon polyps larger than 1 centimeter removed during colonoscopy has also been shown to make a difference.
Hip fracture. If you’re 65 or older, exercise regularly to strengthen muscles and improve balance, which may prevent falls. The government recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. You should also do muscle strengthening exercises at least twice weekly.
Vitamin D supplements may help prevent falls, through increased muscle strength and balance. Also, avoid or minimize smoking and alcohol, which contribute to bone loss.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.