Overall, asked whether public health is better, worse or stable over the past few decades, Americans tilt toward viewing health outcomes in the U.S. as declining compared with 20 years ago. A plurality of U.S. adults say that children’s and adults’ health are both worse today than they were two decades ago. This view is shared among all age groups except seniors; about half of those ages 65 and older think that the health of both children and adults is better today than it was 20 years ago.
While the general public tends to see a mix of factors as important for health, more Americans say healthy eating and exercise are very important for preventing serious disease than say genetic factors or safe and healthy housing conditions are important determinants of health. The public’s beliefs about the factors in disease prevention are similar across age, gender and income groups.
Many Americans pay attention to health information in the media about ways people can protect themselves from the risk of serious disease. Observers have sometimes worried that back-and-forth contradictory media reports about health confuse people, or worse, foster distrust in health and medical studies. The Pew Research Center survey finds that while most Americans report seeing news reports whose advice about disease prevention conflicts with earlier reports, they see the back and forth as a sign of continued research progress. A majority of Americans say it makes sense that news reports over time contain conflicting advice because new research is constantly improving our understanding of disease. A minority of Americans say that such research cannot be trusted because so many studies conflict.
More Americans today view public health as declining than improving
The American public is more pessimistic than optimistic in its assessments of public health today. Nearly half (48%) of Americans believe children’s health, as a whole, is worse today than it was 20 years ago; by comparison, a smaller share, 31%, believe children’s health is better today. One-in-five adults (20%) say children’s health is about the same as it was.
People’s views of change in adult health over the past two decades are similarly more negative than positive. Some 42% of Americans say the health of the adult population in the country is generally worse today, 33% say it is better and 24% say it is about the same as it was 20 years ago.
There are large differences by age in people’s views about public health, suggesting that generational experiences influence these perceptions. Seniors are the only age group in which more people see public health as better rather than the same or worse today. About half (49%) of adults ages 65 and older say that children’s health is generally better today than it was 20 years ago. In comparison, 27% of adults ages 18 to 49 say that children’s health is better today than it was 20 years ago.
And, fully half (53%) of people ages 65 and older say that adult health is better today than it was 20 years ago. In contrast, Americans in younger age groups are more likely to say the health of adults is worse today.
The public sees healthy eating and exercise as key factors in preventing serious disease
Americans are most likely to highlight controllable factors, especially diet and exercise, as important for preventing serious disease. Seven-in-ten adults say that healthy eating habits are very important in preventing a person from getting serious diseases such as cancer or heart disease. Two-thirds (66%) of Americans say getting enough physical exercise is very important in disease prevention.
Smaller shares, though still a majority, say genetics and hereditary factors (55%) or safe and healthy housing conditions (55%) are very important factors to prevent serious diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
Beliefs about the factors in disease prevention are similar across gender, age and income. But, women are somewhat more likely than men to say that safe housing conditions (61% vs. 48%) as well as genetics and hereditary factors (59% vs. 50%) are very important for preventing serious diseases. And those with low family incomes are more likely to say that safe and healthy housing conditions are very important for preventing serious diseases (61% of those with incomes of less than $30,000 annually compared with 48% of those with family incomes of $100,000 or higher).
Conflicting news reports on disease prevention abound, but most Americans see such stories as part of the research process
Most Americans pay attention to stories about how to prevent serious diseases such as cancer or heart disease. Most members of the public (55%) say they hear or read news stories about the ways people can protect themselves from the risk of serious diseases every day (16%) or a few times a week (40%). An additional 28% report they see such news stories a few times a month; 15% say they see such news stories less often than that.
Older Americans are especially likely to follow health news about disease prevention. About two-thirds (65%) of adults ages 50 and older say they hear or read media reports on disease prevention at least a few times a week. By comparison, some 47% of those ages 18 to 49 say they follow news on this topic at least a few times a week.5
People who follow health news regularly are especially likely to say they hear or read news stories about disease prevention that conflict with prior stories. About half (49%) of those who see media reports about disease prevention every day also say they see conflicting news stories about this “all the time.” In comparison, just 13% of all U.S. adults say they hear or read media stories about disease prevention that conflict with prior stories “all the time.”
Some in the science community have worried that news reports of research with conflicting findings about disease prevention might undermine public trust in science.6 While most people are aware of conflicting health studies in the media, most see it as a sign of research progress. Some 74% of U.S. adults say it makes sense that findings conflict because “new research is constantly improving our understanding about ways to protect people from the risk of serious disease.” A smaller share (23%), however, says that “research about ways people can protect themselves from the risk of serious disease cannot really be trusted because so many studies conflict with each other.”
People’s views about contradictory health studies tend to vary depending on their level of science knowledge. An overwhelming majority of those with high science knowledge say studies with findings that conflict with prior research are a sign that understanding of disease prevention is improving (85%). A smaller majority of those with low science knowledge say the same (65%), while 31% say that the research cannot really be trusted because so many studies conflict with each other.
Pew Research Center’s 2016 companion report on public views about food science found a similar pattern. A majority of Americans said they see conflicting media stories about the health effects of food. Some 61% of Americans said that, “new research is constantly improving our understanding about the health effects of what people eat and drink, so it makes sense that these findings conflict with prior studies,” while fewer (37%) said, “research about the health effects of what people eat and drink cannot really be trusted because so many studies conflict with each other.” Similarly, people with lower levels of science knowledge were particularly likely to say that such studies could not be trusted because so many studies conflict.