I did a piece on the potentially misleading nature of rankings last week, and now Maggie Mahar of Health Beat has written a piece on cancer incidence in which she takes issue with a finding reported in the New York Times that claims that nearly 1 in 4 Americans will die of the disease. Along with heart disease, cancer is certainly one of our major causes of mortality. But, as with rankings, disease incidence–averaged across an entire national population–can actually be fairly misleading.
As she explains in her post, cancer risk varies substantially according to other factors like smoking, gender, age, and income. I assume that income is actually a proxy for other health behaviors like diet, exercise, and regular medical checkups. What Mahar reports isn’t really news. I mean, it’s fairly intuitive that the longer you live the more likely you are to die of cancer, as most forms of the disease arise from mutations that become more prevalent over the cumulative course of the lifespan. The interesting thing is why the Times piece would be so quick to overgeneralize in its piece. The obvious answer is that it sells newspapers, but Mahar has other explanations as well.
I’ll be back next week, but until then, why don’t you give her piece a read?