It can feel impossible to interpret health information – but these simple statistics should help you put your lifestyle choices in perspective.

Between drink and a longer life, novelist Kingsley Amis was under no illusions about which he would choose. “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-Super-Mare,” he is reported to have said.

You may or may not agree; the trouble is that the data is often so poorly described that we can’t make a reasoned judgement of just how much our vice may be damaging our health. How do you compare the dangers of eating a burger with that of sitting watching TV or enjoying a few glasses of wine?

To clear up the confusion, the statistician David Spiegelhalter at the University of Cambridge has crunched the numbers so that we can know the absolute effects on our lifespans. He points out that we shouldn’t be tempted to think that a virtue can offset a vice: no matter how much fruit you eat, a 20-a-day smoking habit will still send you to an early grave. But it does at least help put some of our lifestyle choices in perspective.

Despite the recent health scares around the modern lifestyle, comparing your lifespan with that of your grandparents shows us just how lucky we are to live in the 21st Century.

(Source: British Medical Journal)


 David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter. Olivia Howitt is BBC Future’s picture editor. She is @oliviahowitt on Twitter.

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