My kids are geeks and their future health depends on it

by Gillian Mayman on October 8, 2012

An illustrated guide to parenting with science.

All three of my boys are self-proclaimed math geeks and I’m pretty pleased with that. Not because it will help them with their future career goals (as a sculptor, a Lego artist, and a flutist) but because it means that they might have a better chance of being healthy as adults.

It turns out that being number nerds can actually be beneficial to my kids’ future health.

There is a growing area of research on the effect of numeracy on health behaviors and health outcomes. Numeracy is the particular set of abilities and preferences that allow you to understand and act upon numbers-based health information.

Numeracy isn’t an indication of your intelligence. It’s an indication of your desire to have information presented to you as numbers and your ability to think about this data and make appropriate use of it.

At its most basic level, numeracy let’s you perform tasks involving numbers such as understanding nutrition labels, following medication dosages, and interpreting thermometers.

More importantly, low numeracy skills have been found to be associated with poor health outcomes for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and asthma.

People with Type 1 diabetes need to monitor their blood glucose (sugar) levels, track carbohydrates, and adjust insulin doses, all of which require numeracy skills to accomplish. Researchers found that low numeracy was significantly associated with higher levels of blood glucose (sugar) over the previous 3 months (HbA1c levels).

Adult asthma patients need to know when to take medication, use asthma action plans, and interpret peak flow meter results, which all require numeracy skills. Low numeracy was found to be associated with a greater number of hospitalizations and emergency department visits.

An obvious argument is that this just means that people with low numeracy are also just less educated. However,  the effect of numeracy was found to be independent of age, sex, education,and income.

What I find most compelling, however, is that people with higher levels of numeracy are more strongly influenced by quantitative data and less by their feelings. If you have a high level of numeracy and your doctor presents you with risk data about colon cancer and the need for a colonoscopy, you are more likely to be persuaded by the numerical evidence and less influenced by the ickiness of the procedure.

Maybe my kids shouldn’t use this particular argument when being picked on at school.


(This blog post was informed, in large part, by my work with Brian Zikmund-Fisher, PhD, on a chapter of an upcoming book on numeracy.)