Today I have come across another example of terrible reporting when it comes to research. It is impossible for me to tell where the mistake is first made, since I do not have access to press releases, so I don’t know if the marketing people haven’t written them properly, or if the websites presenting that information are doing it poorly. For this article in particular, and sadly many others, I don’t have access to the full text, so I can’t see if the problem started there. Either way, this should stop happening!
A nicely-titled article on HealthDay tells us that the latest research shows that metabolically healthy obese women are still more likely to get heart disease than normal-weight women. That’s all very nice and interesting, and important to know, I am not trying to dismiss the results. My first problem is with this: the biomarkers the study was tracking in order to determine metabolic health in these women were high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. The only bit of the article I have access to is the summary, in which it is clearly stated that the cardiovascular disease risk factors that are related to metabolic syndrome are blood pressure, high blood glucose eventually leading to diabetes, and lipids, namely increasing triglycerides and decreasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Not high cholesterol. As I’ve mentioned in another review, high cholesterol has a much weaker association with heart disease than low HDL cholesterol. Since the data used was from the Nurses’ Health Study from 1980-2010, they may not have known at the time to measure HDL cholesterol insead of LDL; but this is no excuse for us today to simply look at LDL, when we know it is not the best biomarker to use in association with heart disease. I would love to check the article itself, so that I can determine whether it is just the reporting of the finds that is misleading.
My second problem, and this is very infuriating indeed, is that the health news report puts different figures one after the other, without explaining the difference: the researchers (I assume of the Nurses’ Health Study?) found that metabolically healthy obese women had a 39% higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The study authors, on the other hand, found that obese women who were metabolically healthy had a 57% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Why the difference? Is this at different points in time? If one of the criteria changes? Is it absolute versus relative risk? Or what? If you don’t have the answer, you can at least ask the question. But putting such information only 34 words apart shows either lack of understanding of the data, lack of attention, or simply the assumption that no one will notice or care. I notice. And I care.