Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should You Trust the Latest Medical Research? Probably Not

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Research at The Atlantic (via Instapundit) about medical studies and their reliability, or rather lack thereof. It profiles a Greek physician/mathematician named John Ionnidis who has made a career out of challenging and exposing flawed research.

He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong.

An example I've run across is the contention that saturated fat is bad for you and that you will lose weight by going on a low fat diet. It isn't and you won't. Personal experience bears this out. I needed to lose some weight for health reasons and have dropped 35 pounds, give or take, since last March. I stopped eating pasta, rice, potatoes and bread. I do eat green vegetables, meat, butter, etc. and my most recent bloodwork had me with very good cholesterol numbers. I have stabilized at the weight I was nearly 20 years ago.
More from The Atlantic article:

Consider, he [Ionnidis] says, the endless stream of results from nutritional studies in which researchers follow thousands of people for some number of years, tracking what they eat and what supplements they take, and how their health changes over the course of the study. “Then the researchers start asking, ‘What did vitamin E do? What did vitamin C or D or A do? What changed with calorie intake, or protein or fat intake? What happened to cholesterol levels? Who got what type of cancer?’” he says. “They run everything through the mill, one at a time, and they start finding associations, and eventually conclude that vitamin X lowers the risk of cancer Y, or this food helps with the risk of that disease.” In a single week this fall, Google’s news page offered these headlines: “More Omega-3 Fats Didn’t Aid Heart Patients”; “Fruits, Vegetables Cut Cancer Risk for Smokers”; “Soy May Ease Sleep Problems in Older Women”; and dozens of similar stories.

When a five-year study of 10,000 people finds that those who take more vitamin X are less likely to get cancer Y, you’d think you have pretty good reason to take more vitamin X, and physicians routinely pass these recommendations on to patients. But these studies often sharply conflict with one another. Studies have gone back and forth on the cancer-preventing powers of vitamins A, D, and E; on the heart-health benefits of eating fat and carbs; and even on the question of whether being overweight is more likely to extend or shorten your life. How should we choose among these dueling, high-profile nutritional findings? Ioannidis suggests a simple approach: ignore them all.

That last piece of advice has much to commend it. It will help you preserve your sanity (and no, that's not a scientifically tested conclusion).

Read the whole thing. It's an eye-opener.

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