It seems that every new day brings a new research study telling us to do something, such as “eat special superfoods” or not to do something, as in “don’t eat special superfoods.”
It is really hard to know what is real and what isn’t, what could help our seniors or harm them. We have heard for years not to eat eggs, then just eat the egg whites, then eat a mixture of whites and yolks, and now it seems we shouldn’t worry about cholesterol anymore after all. That is the message for today. Tomorrow it may be taboo again.
The reality is that one small research study that is poorly designed or improperly run and can’t be validated by other researchers doesn’t really add to the body of scientific knowledge that will make our seniors’ lives and health better.
Some studies can be picked up by the media or those favoring a certain position and touted as the truth, leading many to jump on the bandwagon. The only real benefit may be, perhaps, someone making a quick dollar selling us something ‘revolutionary’.
The research that we present to you for your senior loved ones is only that which we find to be credible and meant to make you think about what habits you and your senior have developed and how a few small changes may benefit your health. Much research is occurring in how our lifestyle choices, such as what we eat, how much we move, whether we smoke, if we stay in the sun too long and how much alcohol we consume, can negatively impact our successful healthy aging.
We have to take the credible information along with the suspect information and try to make good judgments about what changes will help us be healthy.
Yes, that can be just as difficult and confusing as it sounds.
Red Flags in Research
There is an enormous amount of medical and health research happening around the globe at this time. It can be difficult to tell what is helpful or just downright wrong.
Here are some ways to evaluate the research you encounter and some red flags that should make you hesitant about a study.
- Research should be able to prove a cause and effect. If I drank a cup of coffee this morning, I killed half a million brain cells. (This is an exaggeration for illustration purposes so don’t get worried if you drank several cups today!) Many research studies can show a correlation but not causation, such as many coffee drinkers will eventually have damaged brains. There is no real proof that coffee causes damage but that many people have brain damage. Just because both A and B are happening doesn’t prove A caused B. There may be no idea why or how it happens but we have linked these two ideas together. Do you see the difference?
- Research should occur under carefully controlled and monitored circumstances. There is usually a control group which doesn’t get the real study object, coffee in the above case. They might get another type of warm beverage, such as tea. The participants are in a double blind situation, where not only are they unaware of which group they are in but the researchers also are unaware of their grouping.
- The size of the group should be large enough to draw statistical significance to the data. If only twenty people were given coffee, the group would be considered too small to be of real value from which to draw a plausible conclusion applicable to the general population.
- The biggest red flag in many studies is whether or not it is funded by the very people who are getting the good result. In the demonstration case, it would be people who grow tea who would benefit since we are now going to say stop drinking coffee and start drinking tea. The tea growers are poised to advertise that their product is superior because coffee is bad for your brain. And oh yeah, they paid for the study! It doesn’t mean there was bias in the study — and often there is not — but it’s a valid basis upon which to question the results.
- Another red flag is who benefits. Will the researchers now sell books and products perhaps vitamins that they say will block the brain effects of drinking coffee? It is good to know if there is a conflict of interest.
Being an Educated Consumer of Research
We need to be educated consumers of the information we receive via the media, including the web and social media. If we are interested in the particular research, we could read the actual study, not just a newspaper’s account of the study, to see how it was set up and who funded it. You can see what the recommendations of the researchers were and whether or not it will help your senior loved one.
If we hear about something that we find interesting and we have read the research further to determine if we think it has some merit, what next?
- Decide if doing what the researchers suggest will harm your senior. If you don’t see any reason for harm, then try it. An example of something to try from the recent research is the claim that drinking one 20-ounce sugar-sweetened soda per day could lead to the equivalent loss of 4.6 years of extra aging over time, as the sugar shortens telomeres that predict longevity. Would it hurt your senior (or you) to stop drinking or reduce the amount of sweetened soda, at least on a trial basis?
- Talk to your doctor about whether your senior should start or stop doing something recommended in the particular research study you read. Will taking fish oil help your senior’s cardiac health or eating an egg or two a day hurt their heart?
- Learn more. Read more similar research to see if it was validated by the article you read. When the benefit of fish oil was found, did another study confirm or deny it?
- Don’t believe hearsay from people you may meet without reading about it for yourself. Remember, what is good for one person could harm your senior because everyone is different. Medications your senior takes or medical diseases they have may cause a different reaction in them than others experience.
We all benefit with good quality, verifiable research that can help cure disease, prevent diseases and help us all manage the chronic diseases we already have. Being part of a clinical trial to help further knowledge of specific diseases is a wonderful gift to the world.
Family caregivers should just be careful when buying something that is being called the next ‘miracle cure’ because not only could it be costly in money, but it could be harmful to your senior’s health.