Five tips on using science to live a better, healthier life

Image credit Thomas_H_photo, used via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 licence
by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

You have just woken up. You check your phone and have a look at the news. What do you see? Most days, a key headline will have something to do with science – and with good reason. We live in what many consider a golden age of discovery. Science is making advances we never thought possible and is helping us work out problems we never thought could be solved. We can look for water in outer space, use light-activated nanoparticles to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria and use drugs to correct errors in our DNA to fend off deadly genetic diseases.

However, that’s only one side of the coin. At least half of the science news seems to be urgently pointing at a new problem. Just over the past few weeks, even the most casual news-readers could have found themselves worrying about involuntarily increasing their risk of getting breast or lung cancer by doing apparently healthy things like going outside and taking vitamins. You may have been stressing about compromising your heart’s health by sitting too much or being too tall. And that’s before you’ve even gotten out of bed!

So how can you use science to make more informed decisions? Here are a few pointers to empower you to make a change.

1. Make sure you listen to trustworthy voices
Naturally, if you are going to make changes in your life based on science, you need to make sure you have reliable scientific information. Making sure you only consider reliable sources and you thoroughly familiarise yourself with the subject matter at hand are some of the key steps you can take to make sure you are getting the best information available out there. For more tips, make sure to check out the previous post in this series: Do your research! Six ways to find science you can trust online.

2. Use science to solve your problems, not to create more

Image credit A Healthier Michigan, used via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 licence
A common problem for scientists and non-scientists alike is that science news seems to highlight more problems than solutions. Having read an article about the increased risk of some disease, it’s easy to find yourself checking out an endless list of symptoms.

The solution is simple: don’t try to fix new problems in your life suggested by articles you read online, but look for science answers to problems you already know you have. Start with a well-defined question and start looking for your answers there. Are you unhappy with your diet? Research what nutritionists recommend for people in your same situation. Do you have a family history of cancer and what to know how to protect yourself from that diagnosis? You can concentrate on cancer prevention initiatives and understanding how to pre-empt developing the disease.

Of course, it’s impossible to completely ignore all the new information you come across every day, even when it is not immediately relevant to your goals. Sure, you are really concentrating on how to eat healthier, but should you be worrying about developing early-onset eye cataracts as well? Try to keep things in perspective and ask yourself: Does this apply to me? Is this going to improve my quality of life or is it just creating a new problem I have to solve? It’s OK, even important to disregard issues that you feel are not relevant in your situation!

3. Don’t fall for the fads of the moment
Reading science news, it often feels like we are just trying to play catch-up with the latest fads. First, wine is good for you. Then, wine is bad for you. How are you meant to keep track? Are you supposed to stock up on bottles of vino or throw them all out in the trash? Don’t directly follow the advice of every single fashionable new study out there, no matter how eye-catching it is. Instead, look for more established pieces of science that have been corroborated by studies though a period of several years. Science is not a perfect process and usually scientists need to debate new ideas and test them thoroughly before they can be confident with their conclusions. Make sure you don’t get caught up in the trends of the moment by looking at the big picture!

4. Remember to use common sense!
Navigating through an ocean of scientific perspectives and disagreeing experts can be very challenging. Luckily, we have all been bestowed with a powerful tool to help us find a healthy balance: common sense. If after doing your research you find yourself considering a change in your life that goes against common sense, stop for a moment and think. Are you considering a diet that clearly does not have enough food in it to keep you fed? Are you looking into an expensive experimental treatment for something that should be cleared up with over-the-counter medication?

If you are still at odds with yourself, the best thing to do is to ask an expert – especially if you are considering something that could seriously affect your health and well-being. Make sure you understand the science behind your new resolution and if you feel it is at odds with common sense make sure you understand how science can reconcile the two.

5. Focus on a few key changes

Image credit: Dr Abdullah Naser, used via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Constantly changing how you eat, exercise, rest and work based on the latest scientific findings is no way to live. “Living better” can become an obsession and, paradoxically, actually lower your quality of life by stressing you out and dispersing your focus. Identify a few key areas of your life you feel you need to work on and focus on those. However, if you do find a way to use science to improve your day-to-day life, make sure you stick with it! Constantly changing your focus from new diets to vitamin supplements to new experimental tests to new forms of exercise is not going to help you solve your problems – and in fact is definitely going to make them worse. Sticking with a single option that you are confident is backed by science and resisting the temptation to switch to new “miracle cures” is the only thing that is going to give you results in the long run.  

Gaia Cantelli is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com

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