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A Bit Of Thought Makes Finding Out Medical Risks Less Scary

Would you want to know if you were likely to have an incurable disease?
Would you want to know if you were likely to have an incurable disease?

Would you want to know your risk of getting heart disease? Diabetes? Or an inherited form of breast cancer?

Preventive medicine is all about knowing health risks and taking action to avoid them. But many people just don't want to know. As many as 55 percent of people who get tested for the HIV virus never return to get their test results. People like Angelina Jolie, who took a genetic test to determine her risk of breast cancer and had a preventive double mastectomy to reduce that risk, may be the exception.

But as personalized genetic testing becomes cheaper and more common, more and more of us will face these sorts of choices.

So researchers are trying to figure out what would make us act more like Angelina Jolie and less like that 55 percent.

A few minutes' thought about the pluses and minuses of finding out about personal medical risks make it much more likely that people will want to know their status, a study says.

Researchers at the University of Florida asked people to contemplate reasons why they would avoid finding out about their risk of getting heart disease or diabetes, things like "learning that I am at high risk for diabetes would be distressing" or "I might regret finding out."

In some cases they looked at a list of reasons from earlier studies. In other cases they wrote down three pluses and three minuses on their own, then ranked them in order of importance.

In both cases, people were much more willing to learn their actual risk for heart disease or diabetes once they'd had the chance to think over the ramifications.

That whole process took just a few minutes, but the researchers say that was enough to add some much needed contemplation.

"Our whole idea is that contemplation works by getting people to slow down and make what's the best decision for them at the time," says Jenny Howell, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Florida who led the study.

The results were published online in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers also asked study participants if they would want to know their risk of a made-up disease, TAA deficiency. Contemplation time made participants more apt to want to know their risk if they thought the "disease" was treatable, but not when they thought it was an incurable condition like Alzheimer's disease or Huntington's.

"People tend to think about the controllable aspects," Howell told Shots. This is probably a good thing, since controllable aspects are something that people can act on to improve their health.

Howell and her colleagues are now going to test their hypothesis in the real world, with rural African-American men who face a high risk of throat cancer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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