updated 6/10/2008 5:20:44 PM ET 2008-06-10T21:20:44

If you smoke, start thinking of yourself as a decade older than you really are. A 55-year-old man who smokes has almost the same chance of dying in the next 10 years as a 65-year-old who's never smoked — a stark example from newly published charts that aim to put some of Americans' biggest health risks into context.

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Risk is a difficult concept, mixing emotion and math — and people are bombarded with competing warnings of health dangers.

"Useful messages about health risks should address two questions: 'How big is my risk, and how does this risk compare with other risks?'" said Dr. Lisa Schwartz of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt.

In this week's Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Schwartz's team combed government death statistics to update easy-to-read charts comparing the odds of death in the coming 10 years for different ages and diseases.

The charts — intended for posting in doctors' offices — stress age, gender and smoking status, not more personal risk factors such as a history of cancer in the family. Among the charts' bottom-line messages:

  • Risks change with age. Accidents, for example, are the single largest cause of death for men who don't smoke until age 45. Then, accidents are tied with heart disease until 50, when heart risks take over.
  • Smoking overwhelmingly worsens chances of survival. For example, 7 of every 1,000 women will die of breast cancer between ages 60 and 70 — but 14 of 1,000 will die of heart disease in that period, the charts note. Among smokers, however, the charts show 31 of 1,000 women will die of heart disease between ages 60 and 70, and another 41 of 1,000 will die of lung cancer.

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