Statistics wrapped in a red dress

Being tricked into studying unsettling numbers can do wonders for the heart

February is Heart Month, a time set aside for focused public education campaigns about life expectancies, calorie intakes, and good fatty foods and bad ones. Unfortunately, the month-long statistical assault, which is meant to educate and motivate, turns out to be numbing.

It shouldn’t be like that. It took a lot of meticulous work by caring researchers, unselfish patients, and massive compute clusters to assemble the statistics that should make Heart Month worth tuning into. But what can we do? Statistical overload has kicked in our natural filters, the way information overload has turned us into a society with short attention spans and restless brain syndrome. OK, I’ll send a check to whomever runs Heart Month, but I don’t have room for it in my consciousness. I’ve got my adjustable rate mortgage, benchmarks, dosing of my kid’s medicine, travel expenses, deadlines -- I am just plain numbered out.

Something unusual happened during Heart Month. Something managed to punch through the numerical fog that made February just another page in iCal. Five statistically irrefutable facts slid right past my filters, not through the words of a world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon, but on the hem of a red dress befitting Marilyn Monroe. Man or woman, straight or not, that dress, filled out by an unseen, shapely lady, is guaranteed to stop you dead in your tracks.

That sassy red dress is a secret weapon, a stealthy way to grab the attention of people like me with statistics fatigue and to deliver some simple, irrefutable facts. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women, six times more deadly than breast cancer. Men outnumber women in heart disease studies three to one, and women receive surgical treatment for heart disease about a third as often as men. Women have higher rates of mortality and debilitation than male victims of heart disease.

The red dress led me to these stats, but I didn’t ½nd a pat conclusion. There were no exclamation points, no talk of a paternalistic conspiracy, no rallying cry. Challenges to my conventional assumptions that men die from heart attacks and women die from diseases unique to their gender got the point across nicely.

I was sucked into statistics I was determined to tune out, and I didn’t like that. I was left to develop my own take on the numbers, and my own take caused me to be concerned. I’d have drawn comfort from a canned summary attached to those facts, which would allow me to be cynically disregarding. Denied.

My filters are up for any out-of-band information that tries to get to me through a Google ad, a CNN pop-up, a “send this to everyone you know” e-mail, or a TiVo clip downloaded against my will. I have no defense against a scientific challenge to my ignorance that sneaks into my consciousness through such a low-tech, inefficient means. I wasn’t sucked in by a logo or fashion accessory. That dress has life in it. Maybe someone I know.

The atmosphere of the wired world is polluted with million-dollar messages that were expertly crafted to make us think or spend or care. Yet they are the very reason my e-mail client has a spam filter, my browser has pop-ups disabled, and my radio is permanently tuned to NPR. I was taken in by a $2.50 pin. I feel like a very lucky fool.