Ignorance Is Not Bliss When It Comes To Our Health

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Let me ask you something: If you had a health condition like hypothyroidism, diabetes, or high blood pressure, would you want to know?

I would. Sure, the news would bum me out. I’d probably be anxious for a bit as I researched the condition and learned about lifestyle changes I could make to try to ameliorate it. But I would absolutely want to know I had it instead of going through life ignorantly thinking I was fine.


This might seem like a silly conversation, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to know if something was wrong with them? And yet, when I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association I heard several people tell me that they wouldn’t want to know if they had Alzheimer’s disease. They felt the weight of the knowledge would be worse than the burden of experiencing the progression of the disease in ignorance.

I ask these questions because of a very strange study I read about in the journal BMJ Open. The researchers wanted to explore the relationship between awareness (or unawareness) of a health condition and self-rated health. In other words, they wondered if people would rate their own health status differently depending on whether they knew they had an illness.

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I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I was thinking too: Duh! Of course there will be a difference. If I know I have diabetes and someone asks me to rate my health on a scale, I’m certainly going to rate it lower than if I don’t have diabetes or don’t know I do.

And – surprise, surprise – that’s what they found! People who knew about their health conditions rated their health as lower than people who were unaware they had a health condition. But it gets funnier.

The researchers expressed concern over this finding because lower self-ratings of health are linked to increased morbidity, sick leave, disability claims, and mortality. In other words, they seemed worried that if people actually know about their health status, they will rate their health lower, and that lower health ratings will lead to poor outcomes.

Huh? I think it’s the health condition that leads to these things, not the self-rated health score. But the authors argue that being aware of the disease – especially when it’s diagnosed early and the person is relatively free of symptoms – has negative psychological and physiological consequences. That may be, but I’m pretty sure that those can be mitigated by lifestyle changes and appropriate medications that the person would never have employed without the diagnosis in the first place.


Jorgensen, P., Langhammer, A., Krokstad, S., & Forsmo, S. (2014). Is there an association between disease ignorance and self-rated health? The HUNT Study, a cross-sectional survey. BMJ Open: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/5/e004962.full?sid=a788cd43-eecf-4ada-b976-71d482ba64a4

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