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.)

Carol Shannon October 8, 2012 at 8:40 am

Another great post Gillian! Like the story & the images. I wondered if your Facebook post was related to the blog & here’s the evidence!

Just curious–any ideas of what to do about increasing numeracy throughout the population, at a young or older age? I know people who need help!

Gillian Mayman October 8, 2012 at 9:08 am

That’s a good question. It would be interesting to search the literature in the field of education to see what has been tried. In the health sciences, most of the work on patient numeracy has been focused on adjusting communications and materials to account for differences in numeracy. There have also been a number of studies on physician and nurse numeracy but these seem to be mostly descriptive of their abilities and not work to improve their skills.

Brian Zikmund-Fisher October 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm

There’s some debate in the field regarding whether numeracy as a construct is a set of skills (which could be taught) or represents a more stable trait in adults.

Personally, I tend to think that it’s both. Some people are cognitively and tempermentally more “numbers people.” But, the fact that you can find such people succeeding in fields where numbers are common suggets that such skills can be taught to some degree, at least in specific domains. So perhaps we can both make communications easier for people with low numeracy to use/understand AND raise the profile of such highly practical skills in our education systems.

Liz Borkowski October 8, 2012 at 9:46 am

Very interesting! I’m glad you mentioned that the effect was found to be independent of education and income, because my first thought as I started reading the post was that numeracy might be associated with higher SES, which is also associated with better health.

Margaret October 8, 2012 at 11:05 am

This is a great post again. I like the topic. As a math educator, I find that there are a lot of students even in higher mathematics that have little to no number sense. This seems to show that that little number sense is more what you are talking about. For example some students can do problems by rote, but not understand when their solution does not make sense. It seems that Numeracy is when a person understands the correlation between the numbers and the problem in real life.

I know that this was a long and rambling comment. Great topic. I think Numeracy needed a little more definition. Awesome post!


Gillian Mayman October 8, 2012 at 11:32 am

I think that’s a great explanation. The blog post originally included a section on different definitions but that seemed less interesting than the health effects. I’m working on finding a balance between not enough detail and too much detail.

John Spevacek October 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I was wondering about whether these findings are from numeracy or if it was logical thinking, (it would be difficult to design an experiment to separate the two) but you seem to be suggesting, at least anecdotally that is the former.

Adrian Meli October 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Had the same thought, as it seems difficult to isolate a “numeracy” gene.

Marcia October 8, 2012 at 11:12 am

Hmm, does being more strongly influenced by quantitative data and less by their feelings mean that if one of your boys becomes a doctor, he will be less likely to treat a poor patient than a wealthy one because he won’t profit financially from treating the poor patient?

Intelligence without empathy is just as bad as empathy without intelligence.

Gillian Mayman October 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Hopefully it will mean that he’ll treat his patients based on the evidence and not be influenced by friendly drug reps who buy him expensive lunches :)

John Spevacek October 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

For the Win!

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