Decisions, Decisions

A reader asked me how I choose the articles or studies I include in the blogs. Now you’ve got to remember that researching and I go way back. I was fortunate in that Research Writing was my favorite course to teach before I retired as a community college instructor. I loved it.

I was going to give you my take on researching when I stumbled across Dr. Alicia White’s piece on the United Kingdom’s National Health Services site at https://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/Howtoreadarticlesabouthealthandhealthcare.aspx. She’s already written what I would have, so I’m dedicating today’s blog to that. I have not reproduced all of it only because I don’t have the room in the blog for that. Oh, those are not typos; they’re the UK spelling. Take it away, Dr. White:

If you’ve just read a health-related headline that has caused you to spit out your morning coffee (“Coffee causes cancer” usually does the trick), it’s always best to follow the Blitz slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. On reading further, you’ll often find the headline has left out something important, such as: “Injecting five rats with really highly concentrated coffee solution caused some changes in cells that might lead to tumours eventually (study funded by The Association of Tea Marketing).”

The most important rule to remember is: don’t automatically believe the headline. …, you need to analyse the article to see what it says about the research it is reporting on….

Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article touts a treatment or some aspect of your lifestyle that is supposed to prevent or cause a disease, but doesn’t give any information about the scientific research behind it, then treat it with a lot of caution. The same applies to research that has yet to be published.

Is the article based on a conference abstract?

Another area for caution is if the news article is based on a conference abstract. Research presented at conferences is often at a preliminary stage and usually hasn’t been scrutinised by experts in the field. Also, conference abstracts rarely provide full details about methods, making it difficult to judge how well the research was conducted. …

Was the research in humans?

Quite often, the “miracle cure” in the headline turns out to have only been tested on cells in the laboratory or on animals. … Studies in cells and animals are crucial first steps and should not be undervalued. However, many drugs that show promising results in cells in laboratories don’t work in animals, and many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. If you read a headline about a drug or food “curing” rats, there is a chance it might cure humans in the future, but unfortunately a larger chance that it won’t…..

How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical “power”, and are also more susceptible to finding things (including things that are wrong) purely by chance. … When it comes to sample sizes, bigger is usually better. So when you see a study conducted in a handful of people, treat it with caution.

Did the study have a control group?

…. If the question being asked is about whether a treatment or exposure has an effect or not, then the study needs to have a control group. A control group allows the researchers to compare what happens to people who have the treatment/exposure with what happens to people who don’t. …

Also, it’s important that the control group is as similar to the treated/exposed group as possible. The best way to achieve this is to randomly assign some people to be in the treated/exposed group and some people to be in the control group. This is what happens in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and is why RCTs are considered the “gold standard” for testing the effects of treatments and exposures. … Without either, retain some healthy scepticism.

Did the study actually assess what’s in the headline?

…. For example, you might read a headline that claims: “Tomatoes reduce the risk of heart attacks.” What you need to look for is evidence that the study actually looked at heart attacks. You might instead see that the study found that tomatoes reduce blood pressure. This means that someone has extrapolated that tomatoes must also have some impact on heart attacks, as high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attacks. Sometimes these extrapolations will prove to be true, but other times they won’t. Therefore if a news story is focusing on a health outcome that was not examined by the research, treat it with a pinch of salt.

Who paid for and conducted the study?

This is a somewhat cynical point, but one that’s worth making. The majority of trials today are funded by manufacturers of the product being tested – be it a drug, vitamin cream or foodstuff. This means they have a vested interest in the results of the trial, which can potentially affect what the researchers find and report in all sorts of conscious and unconscious ways. This is not to say that all manufacturer-sponsored trials are unreliable. Many are very good. However, it’s worth seeing who funded the study to sniff out a potential conflict of interest….

Many thanks to Dr. White for her explanations.

Here we are in the middle of madness, holiday madness that is. Of course, that means we need to remind ourselves to slow down and de-stress. Exercising is one way to de-stress. We all have different ways to do that. The important thing is to do it… and stick to your renal diet if you follow one.

To those of who you celebrate Chanukah, I wish you a happy and a healthy first night tomorrow night. We’ll be lighting the Menorah along with you. It’ll be hard not to eat the chocolate gelt (money), but you can do it.

Until next week,
Keep living your life!