Maths for the Good of your Health

Issued: Mon, 30 Sep 2019 15:44:00 BST

Published 30th September 2019 to coincide with Maths Week Scotland

By Ruth Dundas and Dr Linsay Gray, Inequalities programme 

Shouldn’t everyone be able to lead a healthy life? Yes, but sadly this is not always the way. There are many things that affect our health – not just lifestyle and healthcare, but also social life (family, friends and the groups and clubs people belong to), physical environment (where people live, work and go to school), and government policies (like smoking and alcohol regulations, education provision and welfare benefits). How are we supposed to know what is best for our health when it seems that everything has a part to play? That’s where maths can help… or more specifically, statistics.

Stats is our favourite way of exploring patterns in data from surveys and other sources. For example, the Scottish Health Surveys have been run since 1995, with the latest round currently collecting information directly from a cross-section of children and adults throughout Scotland. The 2015 Survey contained over 2000 pieces of information on almost 6500 people – that’s a lot of data!

We can make sense of all these data using simple equations and formulae to answer questions like: “What is the percentage of adults in Scotland who are smokers?” It’s 21%. We can use algebra to investigate more in depth patterns such as: “What features are associated with being a smoker?” Well, age is important with 8% of adults aged 75 and over smoking compared with the higher figure of 26% of 25-34 year olds; the youngest adults can breathe more easily at 21%. Whether someone is male or female matters too: for men, the average (or, as we say, “mean”) number of cigarettes smoked each day is 13.9 which is quite a bit higher than the mean of 11.3 cigarettes for women.

Stats can also help us understand which policies work to improve the health of us all. We know that cigarettes and the clouds of smoke that they give off tend to be bad for our health. That’s why Scotland introduced the smoking ban in public places over a decade ago. When ten months of data before and after the ban were analysed, it was found that the number of people ending up in hospital with heart attacks fell from more than 3,200 to less than 2,700 — that’s an impressive reduction of 17%.

So, the next time you want to know what is best for your health, try a little maths… or stats!