Study the Studies: Too Good to Be True?

My mom turned 80 years old on Wednesday.  She lives 1500 miles away in an Alzheimer’s Memory Center.  We did the usual things;  sent a card, flowers, phone calls…. and she sounded good on the phone, although she couldn’t have told you it was her birthday, or who we were on the other end of the phone.  I love to hear her sounding happy.  It breaks my heart that she is so disconnected. I love that my dad keeps her so busy and as happy as she can be under the circumstances.

My mother is the second person in our family to have contracted Alzheimer’s disease.  Her mother, my grandmother, had it, too — although we didn’t call it such in those days.  Gramma had “hardening of the arteries.”  Same thing, different generation.  Did previous ancestors have it too?  We don’t know.

That explains to you, though, why my sisters and I are highly attentive to any news that comes down the pike regarding Alzheimer’s disease.  There must be genetic tendencies.  We figure there’s a good chance we’re next in line.  You can imagine how we peruse the headlines — we’re looking for any and every helpful tidbit, or any hopeful research results.  No silver bullets have come along.  But we do get promising news on occasion.

Unlike my sisters, I also pay very close attention to any of the news regarding hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and how it relates to anything at all.  In 1993, I had a total hysterectomy and immediately began taking estrogen-only HRT.  In these 15 years, if one was to create a chart of the good news, bad news about HRT, it would look like shark’s teeth — up and down, pointed lines – to HRT or not to HRT?  And if I had only ever read the headlines — worse yet — if I had actually believed the headlines by themselves were always accurate, then I would have been on and off that HRT a dozen times in the interim.

And that brings us to the reason for today’s blog post — an article in Time Magazine called “Study:  Estrogen May Fight Dementia.”  Reading the headline, my heart skipped a beat!  I take estrogen!  Maybe it has turned out to be my silver bullet!  Maybe I won’t get Alzheimers!

But therein lies the problem.  It’s so easy to quickly read a headline like that, then jump to all kinds of conclusions.  And that happens to all of us every day.  No matter what your health concern, past present or future — a quick headline can arouse curiosity or — worse — can satisfy by itself.

Over the years, I’ve had that heart-skipping experience (both good and bad) a dozen times.  I’ve watched the news — and I’ve learned to read not just the article from which the headlines derive, but I’ve then looked behind those headlines, sometimes reading the actual studies that created the news.

The big deal about this particular study is that one of the groups studied was comprised of women just like me.  I actually fit the profile:  age, total hysterectomy, estrogen-only HRT, dosage — almost exactly…..

But then, as happens so often….  once I read the article, I came back down to earth.  It turns out that I may have been taking HRT for too many years.  Or maybe not.  Or it may be better news for women who kept their ovaries and didn’t have surgery at all — natural estrogen.  Or maybe not. 

… and the bottom line?  As often happens, further studies are needed.

Here’s today’s advice:  don’t ever be satisfied by reading a headline.  The whole point behind a headline is to suck you in…. not give you answers.  As a result, it’s very easy to get exactly the wrong impression of the underlying story and frankly, that can be dangerous at times.

If a health headline grabs your attention, look further.  Were the people studied the same as you?  Gender, age, family history, health challenge, treatments, even geographic location — they can all affect outcomes, and the relevance of the headline and study to you. 

If you do decide the headline and story fit you, and if the results are of interest, then trace back to find the study which sparked the article.  The article will tell you what journal reported the findings, or what scientist or doctor conducted the study.  Just google the clues to trace back to the original, then read the original  to make sure the people in the study truly represent you.

And if they do, and if you think the findings will change anything about your treatment or diagnosis, then make copies and take them to your doctor for review.  Most often, your doctor will be aware of the new findings;  but if not, you’ll be helping not just yourself, but other patients who fit your profile, too.

……. UPDATE !!……..

Some homework for you — get some practice reading behind the headlines ….  submitted by Dr. Rich Fogoros, About.com’s resident heart guru, and healthcare system fixer, too …..

This headline came in this week, too, about statin drugs and their relationship to Alzheimer’s.  Statin drugs are those that help lower your cholesterol.  Give this one a look-see — and see if it applies to you: 

 Statin Drugs May Decrease Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

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