Everything You Think You Know About Health Studies Is Probably Wrong

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I’ve spent the better part of the past couple of days writing a story inspired by recent research that suggests running too much may be linked to a shorter lifespanat least, that’s what the headlines about the findings would lead you to believe. But then, today, when I got the researcher on the phone (he’s a cardiologist named Martin Matsumura), he told me that his study didn’t even look at the lifespans of runners. Rather, he and his team were inspired by a couple of previous studies that hinted high-mileage running, over the span of a lifetime, may be connected to decreased longevity. So Matsumura, thinking there must be some other factor besides the running that explained the decreased lifespan, surveyed more than 3,800 runners about their health habits and tried to deduce if there was some commonality between the people who ran 20-plus miles a week, when compared to those who ran shorter distances. Turns out, there wasn’tbut that still doesn’t prove that running “caused” the elite runners to die earlier. It just means that this study didn’t identify another more likely cause. Of course, that level of nuance doesn’t make nearly as snappy a headline, and you have to do a fair amount of legwork to understand those kinds of intricaciesso many media outlets just don’t bother, preferring to regurgitate the misconstrued information put forth on other sites.

If you’re interested in learning more about the other research surrounding this topic, you can check out my article on WomensHealthMag.com about how much running is too much. The answer to that question wasn’t the only interesting thing I learned while doing the reporting for this story, though; I was also reminded of something important about health science in general: Even if you try to stay up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness findings, you probably have a pretty over-simplifiedif not straight-up wrongunderstanding of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen another media outlet cover research in a way that we at WomensHealthMag.com realize, after looking at the full study text and speaking to the study author, is fraught with inaccuracies. Sometimes, even the press releases issued by the universities that conduct the research are wrong (this can happen when someone who works in the university’s media office writes the press release without actually talking to the study author and getting them to verify that the release interprets the findings correctly).

In other instances, a media outlet will cover a study accurately, but they fail to put it into context. This happened to me recently while I was reporting on a study that suggested mammograms don’t save lives. The New York Times took the study findings at face valueand because my boss’s mother happens to work in radiology, we knew the study was flawed and its findings were biased. Since the study findings seemed suspect, we made the decision to cover them in a more comprehensive way that got at the larger issue of whether women should continue to get mammograms. Of course, I’m not saying we cover every study flawlesslynot even close. But we do make an effort to devote the time and resources necessary to not just accurately report on the research that’s core to our brand, but also to put it into context.

So what can you do as a health-conscious media consumer? If you ask me, the truth is that most of the latest study findings, while they can be interesting, aren’t anything that should radically change your habits, particularly when they contradict what you think you know about health and wellness. One study isn’t proof that lean meats are bad for you and should be avoided at all coststhere’s no such thing as a perfect study design, and you may not even have been reading an article that accurately reports on the findings. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to live by all of the latest research (which gets back at that idea of using health and wellness as tools, not weapons), do yourself a favor and wait until there are at least a dozen studies suggesting the same exact thing. When the evidence on any big health point becomes too clear-cut to ignore, you’ll know.

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2 thoughts on “Everything You Think You Know About Health Studies Is Probably Wrong

  1. That’s a good point that I only touched on briefly here. One of the main reasons I chose not to focus on that is I spend so much time in my regular articles (such as the running one I linked to here) explaining how studies can be flawed and that we shouldn’t blindly take their findings at face value. But it’s always good to have a reminder!

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