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Cancer, Heart Disease Worries Eclipse COVID-19

Cancer, Heart Disease Worries Eclipse COVID-19

Story Highlights

  • 50% worry about cancer; 44%, heart disease; and 41%, COVID-19
  • Fewer concerned about stroke, diabetes, flu, AIDS
  • Higher worry among the overweight, those with preexisting conditions

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Although COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death among Americans at several points in the past year, U.S. adults express more concern about personally contracting cancer than a variety of other diseases or medical conditions, including heart disease, COVID-19, stroke, diabetes, the flu and AIDS. Half of Americans are "very" or "somewhat" worried about developing cancer when considering both their risk of getting it and the seriousness of the illness. Closer to four in 10 say the same of heart disease or heart attack (44%) or COVID-19 (41%). Americans are less concerned about a stroke (35%) or diabetes (31%) befalling them and are least worried about the flu (24%) and AIDS (9%).

Still, no more than 13% of Americans express the highest level of worry about getting any of the illnesses.

Bar graph. Americans' level of worry in 2021 about personally experiencing cancer, heart disease, COVID-19, stroke, diabetes, the flu and AIDS. Half of U.S. adults are very or somewhat worried about cancer, 44% about heart disease, 41% about COVID-19, 35% about stroke, 31% about diabetes, 24% about the flu and 9% about AIDS.

These findings are from Gallup's Nov. 1-16 annual Health and Healthcare poll. Americans' degrees of worry about the seven illnesses or conditions differ significantly, based on their gender, age, self-reported personal weight situation and whether they have a preexisting condition.

  • Women are more worried than men about each of the illnesses except AIDS.

  • More than half of women, adults aged 50-64, those who are overweight and those with preexisting conditions express worry about contracting cancer.

  • Majorities of those who describe themselves as overweight or say they have a preexisting condition are worried about falling victim to heart disease. Adults in these two categories are also more likely than their counterparts and those in the other subgroups to be worried about strokes.

  • Although older adults have a greater risk of developing complications from COVID-19, there are no significant differences between age groups in worry about getting it.

  • Overweight adults are the most worried of all groups about diabetes.

Americans' Worry About Contracting Illnesses, by Demographic Subgroup
% Very/Somewhat worried about personally experiencing each illness
Cancer Heart disease COVID-19 Stroke Diabetes Flu AIDS
% % % % % % %
Male 44 40 38 27 27 18 7
Female 56 48 43 43 33 31 10
Age group
18-29 50 37 39 26 37 28 14
30-49 50 46 43 37 34 23 13
50-64 52 50 40 39 35 23 5
65+ 45 41 40 37 13 23 2
Self-reported weight
Overweight 60 58 46 50 42 28 11
About right 43 34 38 26 21 22 6
Presence of preexisting condition
Has condition 55 57 46 48 29 27 7
Does not have 48 40 39 32 31 24 10
GALLUP, Nov. 1-16, 2021

Consistent with the starkly different views of Democrats and Republicans about the seriousness of COVID-19, there is a 30-percentage-point gap in their worry about contracting the virus, 57% vs. 27%, respectively. Democrats are also more worried than Republicans about experiencing cancer and flu, but there is little difference by party in worries about heart disease, stroke, diabetes or AIDS.

Bottom Line

Although modern medicine has advanced in countless ways, cures for many diseases remain elusive. As such, large segments of Americans worry about contracting some of these illnesses and conditions. U.S. adults with certain risk factors, including obesity and underlying medical conditions, are more concerned than those who are healthier about suffering from most of the illnesses in Gallup's polling.

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death among Americans in recent years, and cancer is a close second. COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of nearly 800,000 in the U.S., supplanted heart disease as the top cause of death during several months in the past year. U.S. adults worry more about getting cancer than heart disease and COVID-19. One in two men in the U.S. will develop some form of cancer in their lives, and one in three women will. Ultimately, one in five U.S. adults will die from some form of cancer.

Although the risk of getting an illness like the flu is higher than others, the risk of dying from it is much lower than for heart disease or cancer.

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