Monday, June 29, 2009

Caution: Headlines ahead

Ever notice how one week you'll see a headline like Red Wine Prevents Heart Disease, Study Says and then two weeks later, as you sip a glass of Cabernet while enjoying the Sunday paper, you'll see Study: Red Wine Leads to Growth of Third Eye, or some such horrible thing?

I'm a fan of science — it's improved our lives in innumerable ways. But the reporting of it? Not so much ...

Take the New York Times headline I came across this weekend: Excess Pounds, but Not Too Many, May Lead to Longer Life.

It piqued my interest, and apparently caught the attention of a lot of others, because it was among the most-frequently e-mailed health stories of the week, according to the newspaper's Web site. Spread the word, overweight is good!

The story goes on to explain that the study's headline-worthy finding applied to people who were "overweight but not obese — defined as a body mass index of 25 to 29.9."

I wondered just how many readers would know what BMI means, or how to calculate it. A little explanation would have been nice, to help put the information in context.

You can find a BMI calculator here, in case you're curious what yours is.

The study found that people in that 25-to-29.9 BMI range had a 17 percent lower risk of dying than people of normal weight (defined as a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9). Those who were underweight (a BMI under 18.5) were found to have a 73 percent greater chance of dying than those of normal weight.

Call me self-absorbed, but my usual reaction to such stories is: what does this mean for me? So I tried out that BMI calculator. I'm 5'6" and weigh 136, for a BMI of 21.9.

It turns out that to reach a BMI of 25 to 25.9, I would need to weigh from 155 to 185 pounds.

Would I want to gain 19 to 49 pounds, even if I thought it would buy me a few extra years? Nah, I think I'll pass, thanks.

The study was said to have taken such factors as physical activity and age into account. The data came from 11,326 Canadian adults (sometimes what happens in Canada stays in Canada) who were tracked over 12 years.

Something about it all just didn't sit right with me and I wanted to know more about how the study was conducted and what the actual findings were, not just a quick summary as filtered through a reporter. I clicked on the link that was supposed to take me to the journal Obesity, where the study was said to have first been published, but that link redirected me back to the New York Times Web site.

Other links in the story proved equally unhelpful in finding out more information about the study itself. This story wasn't making it easy for me to draw an informed conclusion.

Even if far more information had been available, how many readers would want to sift through it?

My point is, it's far too easy to seize on a headline and run with it. I also think that when we're bombarded with conflicting information — and there's a cacophony of health and fitness news these days — we eventually lose interest and tune it all out.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of good information out there that we could use to improve our lives. So please, keep on reading, but with a sense of curiosity and a sharp eye, and take some of those study findings with a grain of salt.

But only one grain, please. Excess Sodium Intake Can Raise Blood Pressure, Studies Say

1 comment:

  1. At least there was a decent amount of participants in the Canadian study group, over 11,000. I love the studies based on 39 people. Loved the grain of salt reference, I needed the laugh today.