What scares you most? After the Boston Marathon bombing and other recent acts of violence here and abroad, it's no surprise that many of us fear becoming the victim of a terror attack, shooting or crime.
It's a natural response. And yet, it's not the most logical. The odds of the average American becoming the victim of terrorism are slim. You're 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from an act of terror, according to the National Safety Council. Still, many of us are more worried about our next flight or even subway trip than we are about the long-term effect of a second or third piece of pie.
As a society, it seems, our paranoia is misdirected.
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In a recent New York Times essay, historian Jared Diamond made a compelling case for "constructive paranoia," or a healthy concern for real dangers measured by calculating real risks. Diamond, 75, who has done field work off and on in New Guinea for 50 years, began by boasting that he'd once again survived "a dangerous situation" — his daily shower.
Falls are a common cause of death in people over 70, he pointed out, calculating that if there's even a 1 in 1,000 chance of falling in the shower, he could slip as many as five times before reaching his life expectancy, and any one of those slips could be crippling or fatal.
That calculation, Diamond wrote, represents the most important lesson he learned during his time in New Guinea – "the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently." When New Guineans he camped with refused to pitch their tents under a dead tree because it might fall on them, their fear initially seemed irrational to Diamond. Then he realized that in the forested area where they slept, he could hear at least one tree fall every night. "When I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view," Diamond wrote. His companions' "hypervigilant attitude toward repeated low risks" was "a seeming paranoia that actually makes good sense."
Too many Americans, on the other hand, "obsess about the wrong things and we fail to watch for real dangers," Diamond wrote. We exaggerate the risk of disasters beyond our control while underestimating risks we frequently encounter, like showers, night driving or climbing ladders.
It's no wonder. Terror gets exhaustive media coverage 24/7, even though as we age into midlife and beyond, we face increasing odds of confronting more commonplace adversities.
Perhaps it's time to direct some constructive paranoia in new directions.
We'll All Fall Sometime
One in three adults 65 and older falls each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls are the leading cause of trauma deaths, as well as nonfatal injuries, in that age group. In 2010, 2.3 million falls required emergency-room visits from people over 65 and resulted in 662,000 hospitalizations.
But there's a risk before retirement age as well. About 5 percent of all people age 45-64 needed to see a physician after a fall in 2010, according to the CDC, a statistic that should worry you.
Several factors lead to our increased risk of falls in midlife, including diminished balance, bone loss, postural changes, cognitive decline and muscle atrophy. Some medication can cause dizziness, as can standing up too quickly. Bifocals can make it difficult to navigate stairs and improper footwear can trip you up.
"Starting at 50, people see changes in their bodies, but don't take their joint and neurological changes seriously," says Celeste Carlucci, founder of Fall Stop/Move Strong, a fitness and fall-prevention program based in New York City. "If you want to prevent falls later in life, you need to start addressing your activity level," advises Carlucci, whose program involves a series of strengthening, balance, coordination, flexibility and weight-bearing exercises.
(MORE: Why Falling Is a Risk No Matter Your Age)
To further reduce this ever-present risk, review your medications with a doctor or pharmacist who can advise you of potentially dangerous reactions, like dizziness. Lift your bifocals when you navigate stairs and stand sideways on escalators and moving walkways. In your home, install handrails on stairways — now, before you need them — keep floors uncluttered and cords away from walking paths. Make sure carpets are fixed firmly to the floor and keep non-skid mats on any bathroom surfaces that tend to get wet.
The Most Dangerous Destination: Your Kitchen
Want to eliminate a major area of legitimate concern? Instead of worrying about whether we'll ever find a cure for chronic disease, take steps to avoid contracting one in the first place. A major study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that despite improved health care and greater knowledge of disease and its causes, baby boomers are actually less healthy than members of the previous generation, with higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity than their parents and six times the incidence of high cholesterol.
The problem is simple to diagnose: Adults today sit a lot, eat too much and stress out more than their parents did. "People are eating way more than they can burn off, resulting in an imbalance that puts on more weight and causes high blood pressure and high cholesterol," says Dr. Balu Gadhe, chief medical officer for CareMore Medical Services in Cerritos, Calif.
Insufficient exercise is a major health risk. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all adults age 18-64 to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. Gadhe suggests that adults launching an exercise regimen aim to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week, even if it's just walking. Adding weight-bearing exercises, at home or in a gym, will tone muscles, which helps burn calories beyond the workout.
To improve your diet, start by replacing sugared drinks with water — your large latte could have four teaspoons of sugar; a can of soda, 10. Pay new attention to nutrition labels to reduce salt, sugar and fat intake. And consider a total diet overhaul, ideally to something resembling the Mediterranean diet.
Finally, preserve your health by improving the quantity and quality of your sleep, maybe by spending less time worrying about shark attacks and more time relaxing in the knowledge that your shift to healthier habits will extend your life. "During good quality sleep, organs repair and rejuvenate themselves," Gadhe says, adding that coffee, alcohol, stress, cigarettes and a lack of exercise can all interfere with your rest.
Fear of Faithlessness
Isolation is a key contributing factor to illness, and many single adults justifiably fear one day facing poor health alone. But married people should be worried as well, though less about losing their spouse to an intruder than to divorce.
Over the past 30 years, the boomer divorce rate has doubled and more than a quarter of all people divorcing today are older than 50, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green University.
"We feel we are entitled to happiness at any cost," says Lisa Helfend Meyer, founding partner of the Los Angeles-based family law firm Meyer, Olson, Lowy & Meyers. Many spouses reach midlife or their empty-nest years and begin to think, "Now it's time to focus on me," she says. And fewer are willing to, as they may see it, sacrifice their final years – which, given longer life spans could last for decades after retirement – to an unhappy marriage.
That's one cause of later-life divorce. Another is infidelity. "If you've been married to the same person for 30 years, you're looking for excitement," explains Meyer, although she warns clients that "the grass isn't greener. If it's good enough, stay in the marriage."
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Bouncing Back From Infidelity)
Assuming that is perceived as a worthy goal, staying together requires work, starting with frequent and honest communication. It's much harder than, say, buying a better burglar alarm to prevent home invasion. "The most powerful thing you can do to keep a marriage strong is form a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed," says psychotherapist Tina Tessina, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "Treat your partner like your best friend."
With American life spans now averaging almost 80 years, it's far more likely that you'll face long-term health, relationship and financial crises than a terrorist attack or traumatic accident.
Focusing on the hard work needed to develop healthier habits and strengthen your relationships will improve your odds of surviving the real threats that can hinder your quality of life, and that are well worth a little constructive paranoia.
Next Avenue contributor Jen Singer is the founder of ParentingWithCancer.com and a blogger at MommaSaid.net. She has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parenting magazine and more.