One in three underestimate their risk of heart infarction

2021-04-19

One in three underestimate their own risk of cardiovascular disease. Many are good at understanding risks and risk factors when they pertain to other people. A recent study reveals that when it comes to our own risk, many of us appear to have a blind spot. In an interview, Åsa Grauman reveals how this finding could help improve risk communication in health care. 

Åsa Grauman
Åsa Grauman, postdoc researcher at CRB

“Underestimating your own risk is quite common. In our study, about a third of participants did. Partly because their health was good, or because they had no family history of heart infarction. But what is interesting is that the underestimation does not seem to correlate with education level or health literacy,” says Åsa Grauman, one of the authors of a recent European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing publication and post-doc researcher at Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics.

Åsa Grauman and her colleagues asked people aged 50-65 who took part in the large Scapis-study to estimate their own risk of cardiovascular disease. Following up the results from their self-estimation by comparing them to the medical results from the Scapis-study.

Underestimations of our own risk levels seem to depend on our experienced health, or a family history unaffected by heart infarctions. But when it comes to estimating other people’s risk, we are more likely to consider the medical metrics.

“When communicating health messages to the general public, considering education levels and health literacy is important. But as our study shows, those are not the deciding factors when we estimate our own risk of cardiovascular disease. A patient might know smoking is a risk factor, but if they feel healthy and have no symptoms, they are likely to assume that they are in the clear. How healthy we feel can overshadow our general knowledge about risk factors, and about how healthy we are,” Åsa Grauman says.

Åsa Grauman concludes that human beings are problem solvers. If you have a headache, you take a pill and feel better. But if you are feeling healthy and estimate that your risk is low, you might not be motivated to change your lifestyle or take medication to lower your blood pressure to avoid cardiovascular disease.

Health checks are a tool to make an individual’s risk visible and perhaps cause some concern. This concern might be what people need to act. Communicating about cardiovascular risk is a balancing act between labeling what appears to be healthy people as future patients, and preventing disease.

Read full interview (in Swedish)

Grauman Å., et al; Good general health and lack of family history influence the underestimation of cardiovascular risk: a cross-sectional study; European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, zvab019, DOI: 10.1093/eurjcn/zvab019, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurjcn/zvab019

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