Mathematical calculations are good for exercising the mind and stimulating different brain areas. But beyond that, having skill with numbers is decisive when it comes to controlling a disease, calculating the side effects of a medication or negotiating the conditions of an insurance policy.
Different studies have shown that mathematical dexterity is related to better health and that it influences making daily decisions, analysing problems and finding solutions with the available data, leaving emotions to one side. Moreover, being familiar with numbers in childhood could influence getting a better job in the future.
Rosamund Snow was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was a teenager. In an article published in the British Medical Journal where she worked, she wrote: “If I want to walk to the shops, or even eat a piece of fruit, I have to plan, think about what happened since my last injection and what is likely to happen before my next one; I have to carry emergency supplies; I have to do blood tests. I can’t even have a drink without having to do maths.”
The woman, 46 years old, illustrated very well the role of numbers in the field of health, especially when living with a disease. In her case, she took her own life a few months after writing this article.
“Diabetes requires a lot of math ability to manage properly,” Ellen Peters, professor of psychology and medicine at Ohio State University (USA), tells OpenMind. Diabetic patients have to estimate portion sizes, calculate carbohydrate intake and extract data from food labels. They must also interpret blood sugar readings and other clinical data, in addition to adjusting their medications, the professor reminds us.
Different investigations have shown that the poor mathematical ability of a patient will negatively influence the control of their disease. They are also more inclined to take less care of their health and not take complex medication correctly, as in the case of HIV.
“People who are less numerate (compared to those who are more numerate) have been found to be less healthy, including suffering from a greater number of diseases such as COPD, liver disease, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes,” Peters says.
The doctor notes that several studies have shown that people less gifted with numbers tend to understand the risks of a disease more poorly, take fewer measures to avoid them—such as using condoms to prevent HIV—and are more reluctant to take medications for fear of side effects Patients with asthma, for example, are hospitalized more often.
Leaving aside pathologies, in other aspects of health care one also needs to have a good numerical base: the co-payment of prescriptions, medical insurance, the probability of suffering side effects when taking a drug… In all these aspects an understanding of numbers is useful.
Another vision of reality
Jack Smith is a professor at the State University of Michigan (USA) and an expert in the teaching of mathematics. In the past he worked in construction, a sector in which geometry and trigonometry are fundamental. “In squaring a corner, carpenters use the Pythagorean Theorem, whether they know it as such or not,” he points out to OpenMind.
In everyday life, we constantly think in mathematical terms, such as when we calculate the time needed to get to a place, consult our bank account or buy products on sale.
According to Smith, people who understand mathematics—which does not necessarily imply that they were brilliant in this subject at school—are good at thinking about everyday situations in mathematical terms.
” ’Word problems’ in school may seem unrealistic, but those who understand have no difficulty seeing the relationships between the quantities in the problem and deciding how to think about them to produce answers,” says the professor.
In research published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Peters has studied how mathematical ability influences decision-making. People who face day-to-day life with the help of numbers are less prone to be the victims of scams and tend to weigh different options with data, without being influenced by the opinions or emotions of other people, which would be the easiest, though less accurate, way.
They influence the future of work
Another study conducted by the University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom) also showed that mathematical skills go beyond the classroom. The authors discovered that mathematical and reading ability at the age of seven is related to socioeconomic status several decades later.
Using data from the National Child Development Study, which encompasses more than 17,000 people over a period of about fifty years—from the time they were born in 1958 to today—researchers found that participants with higher reading and math skills when they were children ended up having higher incomes and better housing and jobs in adulthood.
According to the study, having a reading level a step above the average at age seven was associated with about 5,600 euros more income at age forty-two. The authors maintain that these skills predict socioeconomic status in adulthood, even after adjusting for the influence of intelligence, education and family income when you are a child.
“Research has indicated that people who are less good at math (who are less numerate) are more likely to be unemployed long term and to have less adequate retirement savings,” concludes Peters. Numbers to improve real life, indeed.