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Vital Signs

Charts developed at DMS offer a clear comparison of risks

By Jennifer Durgin

What's the biggest killer of men and women under age 40 who have never smoked? Not heart disease, not cancer, but accidents—unintentional injuries. That may come as a surprise, say three Dartmouth physician-researchers, because health risks are rarely put in context.

Risks: "Useful messages about health risks should address two questions," the team wrote recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: "How big is my risk and how does this risk compare with other risks?"

Using national data, Drs. Steven Woloshin, Lisa Schwartz, and H. Gilbert Welch created charts that attempt to answer those questions for the most common causes of death, plus a few of the most-talked-about causes. They wanted to help people "make sense of the health threats they face."

Mortality: The charts also "provide a compelling demonstration of the harms of cigarette smoking," Woloshin and his colleagues wrote. "The effect of smoking on mortality risk is like adding 5 to 10 years of age," they pointed out.

The New York Times was impressed by the charts, noting that they "provide a broader perspective than most of the risk calculators available on the internet." Both physicians and patients may find them a handy tool to assess individual risk.

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