Perceptions of control over different causes of death and the accuracy of risk estimations

Richard Brown*, Elizabeth Sillence, Gillian Pepper

*Corresponding author for this work

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A large number of deaths could be avoided by improving health behaviours. The degree to which people invest in their long-term health is influenced by how much they believe they can control their risk of death. Identifying causes of death believed to be uncontrollable, but likely to occur, may provide actionable targets for health interventions to increase control beliefs and encourage healthier behaviours.

We recruited a nationally representative online sample of 1500 participants in the UK. We assessed perceived control, perceived personal likelihood of death, certainty of risk estimation, and perceived knowledge for 20 causes of death. We also measured overall perceived uncontrollable mortality risk (PUMR) and perceived prevalence for each of the Office for National Statistics’ categories of avoidable death.

Risk of death due to cancer was considered highly likely to occur but largely beyond individual control. Cardiovascular disease was considered moderately controllable and a likely cause of death. Drugs and alcohol were perceived as risks both high in control and low in likelihood of death. However, perceptions of control over specific causes of death were found not to predict overall PUMR, with the exception of cardiovascular disease. Finally, our sample substantially overestimated the prevalence of drug and alcohol-related deaths in the UK.

We suggest that more can be done by public health communicators to emphasise the lifestyle and behavioural changes that individuals can make to reduce their general cancer risk. More work is needed to understand the barriers to engaging with preventative behaviours and maintaining a healthy heart. Finally, we call for greater journalistic responsibility when reporting health risks to the public.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Public Health
Early online date14 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Apr 2023

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