Less News More Perspective

by DavalosMcCormack on September 11, 2008

I was browsing the web today looking for some interesting items for this column. Wednesday is usually a pretty busy day on health-related websites because there are a lot of new studies coming out in the big journals, Journal of the American Medical Association and New England Journal of Medicine.

Today was no different with studies ranging from one that says a popular surgery provides no pain relief for osteoarthritis of the knee to one that says people with Parkinson’s disease experience more pain than people who don’t have the disease. There was no shortage of stuff to chose from.

But as I scanned all the material it occurred to me that every day we are bombarded with new information but rarely are we given any kind of perspective on where this new information fits into everything that’s gone before. All it tells us is what’s new, not what it really means to us.

For instance, one week you’ll get a study saying coffee may cause a slight increase in blood pressure, the next week a different study says when 155,000 nurses were studied, those who drank coffee were no more likely than those who didn’t to develop hypertension.

So how do you not just make sense of all this information but make sense of all this contradictory information?

Sadly one of the old sources for putting all this information into context, the media, is becoming an increasingly unreliable venue for balance and perspective. There are still some great reporters out there doing wonderful work (Tara Parker Pope’s Well column on the New York Times website is a shining example) but too many newspapers and TV stations are getting rid of specialized health and medical reporters, those left to cover the beat often just slap together brief summaries of what’s new without anything else to give you a sense of what it means to you.

So, here’s some basic rules of thumb.

1) Never change your life based on one study. What’s important is not what the latest finding is but how that fits in with everything else that’s come before, is it part of a progression of findings that point to an overall conclusion, or is it completely different than what’s come before. So find out where that study fits in before deciding if it’s significant enough to warrant making changes in your lifestyle.

2) Never trust any headline that claims a breakthrough.  Science rarely advances in huge leaps and bounds but in small steps, each one building on the last.

3) Never make any changes based on studies done in the lab or in animals. These studies may be great science, they may uncover fascinating findings that will ultimately lead to new treatments for horrible diseases. But then again they may not. How often have you heard about a study that cures cancer in fruit flies or finds how a single protein can block the activity of the AIDS virus in the lab, only to find out that when they tried to replicate those experiments in people they failed miserably.  Good research begins in the lab, but until it’s been tested in people it’s still unproven.

4) Never make any changes based on studies done in small numbers of people. You may read a study that says a new medication proved effective in treating people with, say, scabies. Then you read that it was done on 12 people in Germany. That’s not enough to make any kind of generalizations about how good that medication is in treating Germans let alone in treating everyone else. Researchers often chose a very particular kind of patient for their studies, and the findings sometimes don’t hold up when tried in a much larger, more diverse population. Wait till it’s been tried in a large, preferably double-blind, study before you start making any changes based on its findings.

5) Read, research, reflect. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Do a little research, read up on it, check out what others think about it, think a little bit about it yourself. The more informed you are, the more you think about the research, the better equipped you will be to decide if it’s important enough for you to make any changes in your lifestyle.

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