Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Only Thing We Have To Fear... fear itself, according to the famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt. While this aphorism was intended to warn people away from the dangers of inactivity in the face of difficulty, New York Times science writer/libertarian John Tierney brings up a new study suggesting that there might be some scientific basis to the statement.

The numbers, of course, aren't perfect, but we can extrapolate a bit from what Tierney gives us. 6 percent of Americans are continually stressed about terrorism, and such people are three times as likely to develop heart disease. The American Heart Association estimates that about 80,000,000 Americans has some form of heart disease. Adjusting a little for the number inflation of which advocacy groups are often guilty, we can estimate that about 20% of Americans will get heart disease (that number I cited above puts the value at 37%, so I'm using a very conservative estimate). Now, if the people in that sample are three times more likely to get heart disease, this means that, on average, 60% of them - 3.6 million - will develop some sort of heart ailment. 2.4 million of those would not have had a heart problem if not for fear of terrorism.

The AHA further cites mortality rates at around 10% of the population. Again adjusting downward and using 5%, this means that 120,000 people died of heart disease that was related to fear of terrorism.

That number's probably still artificially large, but think about that for a moment. Al-Qaeda, in their wildest dreams, couldn't think of pulling a terrorist attack with 120,000 victims. If we sum all the victims of terrorist attacks on US soil since 1980, we can't break 5,000, even if we're generous with what constitutes an attack.

Interesting numbers. But here's the question - is Tierney causing even more heart attacks by making us fear fear?


Mike said...

One counterpoint: I'm pretty sure the mortality rate of any population is 100%, not merely 10. After all, the leading cause of death is birth.

Seriously, the fear of fear itself is somewhat paradoxical in nature. If we didn't fear fear we could be afraid of all sorts of things, and what sort of effect would that have on our health?

Excuse me while my head explodes.

-Dave said...

There's a worthy caveat to these numbers. If 6% of people are terribly stressed about terrorism, it's worthwhile to know how likely these people are to be generally stressed out. In the list of factors the researchers controlled for, I don't see "propensity to be stressed out."

If, for example, 90% of the people who are unhealthfully anxious about terrorism would be unhealthfully anxious anyway, then the number "terrorist heart disease" quotient drops a lot.

Your overall point, however, is still good. I only quibble because 6% of the people I meet don't seem acutely nervous about terrorism, so the number doesn't smell right.

Barzelay said...

2.4 million of those would not have had a heart problem if not for fear of terrorism.

That isn't at all clear to me from the article. I think it's more likely that there is a correlation between individuals stressed about terrorism and individuals with habits that lead to heart disease. And that, to me, is quite an obvious link.

Jeff said...

Yeah, like I said, the numbers aren't great, and that 2.4 million number is probably really high. It is definitely worth investigating whether the 6% of people who are freaking would freak over their dirty dishes or something, but I have no idea how you would control for that. Maybe you could give people a test - ask them a few things and say "does this scare you" - before asking about terrorism... but that would skew the numbers since you've already activated the "things you should be scared of" category in the brain of the respondent.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that terrorphobia is dangerous as part of a whole culture of fear (be it of germs or hurricanes) that preys on easily stressed people. What is clear to me is that the excess fear injected into our society by the terror-industrial complex is having a definite adverse effect on our health, and that instead of stoking our fears people should be going out of their way to calm us down. You know, for the children.