SIZE UP A STUDY
It’s my job to read the studies behind health headlines. If you want to follow suit, try Pubmed, a free online archive of tons of medical journals. But if you’re pressed for time, or the scientific lingo is just too dizzying, make sure these details are ID’D in the news report. The more boxes ticked, the better.
It was published in a scientific journal. That means the study was peerreviewed or checked out by other experts before publication. Conference abstracts (summaries of research presented at medical meetings) or unpublished papers haven’t been through this same scientific wringer. The study was on humans. Research done in test tubes or on animals can yield important findings, but it only tells you what happens under ideal lab conditions or how a mouse (not a human) reacted to a drug or treatment.
And plenty of humans. The more people in the study sample, and the more of them who are like you (women of a similar age and health status), the more applicable it will be to you. Research done on nine Scandinavian men who’ve had heart attacks won’t tell you much about your own cardiovascular health. “One of my biggest gripes is with weight-loss studies,” says WH researcher Sara Green. “Many are done on obese people, who are likely to lose weight when they’re put on any kind of diet. If you’re just trying to drop a few kilos, you’re not going to see the same results.”
It shows causation, not just correlation. Two things can be linked, but that doesn’t mean one causes the other. Ice cream sales and sunburn risk both rise in summer; that doesn’t mean that buying more ice cream causes sunburn.
Whoever funded it doesn’t have an agenda. The study should disclose who paid for it, and thereby any potential conflicts of interest. So if a study that found eating rutabagas will give you better orgasms was paid for by The National Rutabaga Society, question it.
Two things can be linked, but that doesn’t mean one causes the other.