Different ages need different risk messages, research finds

October 12, 2011 By Karene Booker

(Medical Xpress) -- From emergency evacuation notices to how many vegetables to eat, people need good information to make good choices. Ineffective risk communication, such as the drug warning inserts in tiny type on paper folded over some 12 times, can cost lives, money and reputations.

A chapter on risk communication by Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of and co-director of Cornell's Center for and Decision Research, in a new book explains how people of different ages have different needs when it comes to understanding risk messages.

The chapter is part of the new book "Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User's Guide," published by the and freely available online. The book distills the science on health communications and provides recommendations for designing and evaluating messages. It features the work of experts at the forefront of research in medical decision-making and health communications.

"Messages that have an impact are those that are understood and remembered," said Reyna. "But cognitive processing and memory change dramatically from childhood to old age."

Effective risk communication is essential to the success of public health efforts, she said.

Research suggests that and memory for details improve from childhood through , but then gradually decline. However, the ability to remember the gist of information grows in childhood and remains strong throughout adulthood in the healthy brain. Remembering the gist of information is important because it lasts longer and is relied on to make most decisions, Reyna said. To instill the gist of a message, risk communication needs to be tailored by age.

Reyna's research suggests that children, for example, need information in simple short sentences, such as: "Eat ." "Make half your plate fruits and vegetables." Such repetition will stamp these details into memory, but children will also need cues for meaning, such as "fruits and vegetables make you strong."

As children get older they will become increasingly able to connect the dots and extract the meaning of information, Reyna said. Older children, for example, will get the gist that apples, spinach, carrots and fish are healthy food, and fries, tacos, cola and cheeseburgers are generally not. Since children influence family food buying and make food choices at school, how they process risk messaging is important, Reyna said.

Adolescents make choices about diet and exercise, sex, driving, drinking and drugs to name a few. This is also a time when many attitudes and habits about risks and benefits take root, Reyna said.

Older adults on the other hand, face risk-benefit decisions about medications, surgical procedures and financial planning.

They need communications presented more slowly and need more memory aids due to slowing processing speed and challenges with remembering details. Written instructions, as well as alerts and reminders delivered electronically (e.g., to take medication or to signal that medication has already been taken) are likely to be helpful.

Unlike children however, older adults can rely on fairly high levels of gist knowledge. It is also essential to explain the reasons for health recommendations to them since extraction of gist is the main mechanism through which older adults remember information, Reyna said.

"To influence attitudes, values and preferences, and in turn, change behavior, the design of risk communications must take advantage of what we know about how the brain works and develops across the life span," said Reyna. "But that is just step one. We also need to use scientific methods to evaluate the effectiveness of such messages."

Explore further: Why are Internet anti-vaccine messages dangerous

Related Stories

Why are Internet anti-vaccine messages dangerous

July 19, 2011
Evidence has long shown routine vaccines to be safe and effective, but a growing community of critics still claims that they pose more danger than the diseases they prevent. A Google search of "vaccine," for example, produces ...

Recommended for you

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

Office work can be a pain in the neck

December 15, 2017
Neck pain is a common condition among office workers, but regular workplace exercises can prevent and reduce it, a University of Queensland study has found.

Regular takeaways linked to kids' heart disease and diabetes risk factors

December 14, 2017
Kids who regularly eat take-away meals may be boosting their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, suggests research published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Simulation model finds Cure Violence program and targeted policing curb urban violence

December 14, 2017
When communities and police work together to deter urban violence, they can achieve better outcomes with fewer resources than when each works in isolation, a simulation model created by researchers at the UC Davis Violence ...

One in five patients report discrimination in health care

December 14, 2017
Almost one in five older patients with a chronic disease reported experiencing health care discrimination of one type or another in a large national survey that asked about their daily experiences of discrimination between ...

Your pets can't put your aging on 'paws'

December 14, 2017
(HealthDay)—In a finding that's sure to ruffle some fur and feathers, scientists report that having a pet doesn't fend off age-related declines in physical or mental health.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.