What Medical Condition Are You Most Afraid Of?

Study finds that cancer and Alzheimer’s are the diagnoses people fear most, even more than COVID-19.

Published May 5, 2021

Key Findings

  • COVID-19 is the fifth-most feared health condition in America, behind cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack/heart disease and strokes.

  • More people fear COVID-19 than diabetes, despite the long-term ramifications of diabetes.

  • Although heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., it is only the third-most feared condition.

  • More than half (59%) of smokers say they have not been especially concerned about developing lung cancer.

Study Overview

What health condition are you most afraid of? And is that fear justified? We surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults to determine the most feared health conditions in the U.S. and how those fears compare to the actual threat each of those conditions pose. 

As COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy remains a challenge in the U.S. and the COVID-19 death rate hovers close to 2%,1 we set out to better understand just what medical fears are driving the health decisions people make and what health conditions they're convinced are the deadliest.

The Top 5 Most Feared Health Conditions in 2021

The top five health conditions that people are most afraid of (in order) are cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack/heart disease, strokes and COVID-19.

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Graphic showing the most feared health conditions compared to their relative death rates

Cancer fears are more than justified. It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and that more than 1,600 Americans died from cancer every day that year. While heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., cancer remains the number one killer around the world.

Although cancer was widely feared among survey respondents, 59% of smokers claimed not to have worried about developing lung cancer in the past year. And the remaining 41% continue to smoke despite having some concerns about the risk of lung cancer. 

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Graphic showing the most feared types of cancer according to smokers and nonsmokers

Smoking is the number one risk factor for developing lung cancer, and those who smoke are up to 30 times more likely to develop or die from lung cancer.

But according to the survey, regular smokers express only slightly more overall fear of any type of cancer cancer than non-smokers. 

Graphic highlight stating the percentages of smokers and nonsmokers who are afraid of cancer

The number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise, and it’s estimated that one in four people with the Alzheimer’s are never diagnosed. The vast majority of those with Alzheimer’s are at least 65 years old, and two-thirds are women.

The fear of heart attacks and heart disease was outpaced by fears regarding cancer and Alzheimer’s. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women, however, accounting for around one out of every four deaths in the U.S. each year. One person in the U.S. dies from cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.

Someone in the U.S. suffers a stroke every 40 seconds, with a fatal stroke occurring every 4 minutes. 

Putting Fears of COVID-19 in Context

COVID-19 was the fifth most-feared health condition in the survey and was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, trailing only heart disease and cancer. 

Meanwhile, while diabetes was directly responsible for around 88,000 deaths in 2020 (far fewer deaths than COVID-19), it is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and lower limb amputations. 

Despite the presumably temporary nature of COVID-19’s large share of U.S. deaths and the serious long-term negative health effects of diabetes, respondents reported greater fears of COVID-19 than diabetes, with 67% being somewhat or very fearful of COVID-19 compared to 57% who were somewhat or very fearful of diabetes. 

The fear of COVID-19 extends to a fear of being a “long hauler,” or someone who experiences the symptoms of COVID-19 for far longer than normal. And while older adults are more vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19, it’s younger adults who are more fearful of becoming a COVID-19 long hauler. 

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Graphic showing percentage of people who are afriad of becoming a COVID-19 long hauler

The Health Outcomes and Results People Fear the Most

Fears associated with health conditions are not limited to just the condition itself, but also the ramifications of it. 

The two negative health outcomes people fear most are cognitive decline and loss of physical mobility. Respondents were nearly evenly split on whether they most feared losing the use of their mind or the use of their body. 

Fear of losing one’s independence was also evident, with the fear of being put in a long-term care facility, being treated by others as weak or vulnerable and the inability to drive all registering as a serious fear for 60% or more respondents.

Nearly one out of three people fear being forced to move in with their children or grandchildren as a result of an injury or illness. 

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Graphic showing percentage of people who fear various negative health outcomes

Most people have a greater fear of experiencing a serious health condition themselves as opposed to having to care for someone else suffering from it. There was one notable exception, however: 71% of people think it would be harder to care for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia as opposed to being diagnosed with it themselves. 

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Graphic showing comparison of percentages of people more affraid of receiving a diagnosis or caring for someone who has the disease

Conclusion

Most people’s level of fear for certain health conditions are generally justified in relation to the seriousness of the condition. However, people are more fearful of COVID-19 than the serious long-term effects of diabetes. And younger people, who are less vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19, are more fearful of becoming a “long hauler.” 

Smokers are more fearful of being diagnosed with lung cancer than non-smokers, but are only marginally more fearful of cancer as a whole. 

Cognitive decline and lack of mobility are the most feared outcomes from a health condition with a fear of a loss of independence also evident. However, people have a greater fear of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia than they fear getting the disease themselves. 

Methodology

This study was conducted via a survey conducted April 26-27, 2021. The total survey included 1,221 people aged 18 and older. Respondents that were categorized as smokers were those who reported either smoking alone or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Participants were filtered based on completion time and failure to follow written instructions within the survey. Those who already had the listed health conditions were filtered out.

Margin of error: +/- 4% (95% confidence interval). This survey relies on self-reported data.

Fair Use Statement

Of course we would love for you to share our work with others. We just ask that if you do, please grant us the proper citation with a link to this study so that we may be given credit for our efforts.

Research and reports

Our research reports analyze a number of issues important to seniors, from health perceptions, medical communication, health habits, and more.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID Data Tracker. Data as of May 3, 2021. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker.