September 15, 2007


Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy? (GARY TAUBES, 9/16/07, NY Times Magazine)

At the center of the H.R.T. story is the science of epidemiology itself and, in particular, a kind of study known as a prospective or cohort study, of which the Nurses’ Health Study is among the most renowned. In these studies, the investigators monitor disease rates and lifestyle factors (diet, physical activity, prescription drug use, exposure to pollutants, etc.) in or between large populations (the 122,000 nurses of the Nurses’ study, for example). They then try to infer conclusions — i.e., hypotheses — about what caused the disease variations observed. Because these studies can generate an enormous number of speculations about the causes or prevention of chronic diseases, they provide the fodder for much of the health news that appears in the media — from the potential benefits of fish oil, fruits and vegetables to the supposed dangers of sedentary lives, trans fats and electromagnetic fields. Because these studies often provide the only available evidence outside the laboratory on critical issues of our well-being, they have come to play a significant role in generating public-health recommendations as well.

The dangerous game being played here, as David Sackett, a retired Oxford University epidemiologist, has observed, is in the presumption of preventive medicine. The goal of the endeavor is to tell those of us who are otherwise in fine health how to remain healthy longer. But this advice comes with the expectation that any prescription given — whether diet or drug or a change in lifestyle — will indeed prevent disease rather than be the agent of our disability or untimely death. With that presumption, how unambiguous does the evidence have to be before any advice is offered?

The catch with observational studies like the Nurses’ Health Study, no matter how well designed and how many tens of thousands of subjects they might include, is that they have a fundamental limitation. They can distinguish associations between two events — that women who take H.R.T. have less heart disease, for instance, than women who don’t. But they cannot inherently determine causation — the conclusion that one event causes the other; that H.R.T. protects against heart disease. As a result, observational studies can only provide what researchers call hypothesis-generating evidence — what a defense attorney would call circumstantial evidence.

Testing these hypotheses in any definitive way requires a randomized-controlled trial — an experiment, not an observational study — and these clinical trials typically provide the flop to the flip-flop rhythm of medical wisdom. Until August 1998, the faith that H.R.T. prevented heart disease was based primarily on observational evidence, from the Nurses’ Health Study most prominently. Since then, the conventional wisdom has been based on clinical trials — first HERS, which tested H.R.T. against a placebo in 2,700 women with heart disease, and then the Women’s Health Initiative, which tested the therapy against a placebo in 16,500 healthy women. When the Women’s Health Initiative concluded in 2002 that H.R.T. caused far more harm than good, the lesson to be learned, wrote Sackett in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, was about the “disastrous inadequacy of lesser evidence” for shaping medical and public-health policy. The contentious wisdom circa mid-2007 — that estrogen benefits women who begin taking it around the time of menopause but not women who begin substantially later — is an attempt to reconcile the discordance between the observational studies and the experimental ones. And it may be right. It may not. The only way to tell for sure would be to do yet another randomized trial, one that now focused exclusively on women given H.R.T. when they begin their menopause.

A Poor Track Record of Prevention

No one questions the value of these epidemiologic studies when they’re used to identify the unexpected side effects of prescription drugs or to study the progression of diseases or their distribution between and within populations. One reason researchers believe that heart disease and many cancers can be prevented is because of observational evidence that the incidence of these diseases differ greatly in different populations and in the same populations over time. Breast cancer is not the scourge among Japanese women that it is among American women, but it takes only two generations in the United States before Japanese-Americans have the same breast cancer rates as any other ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is a cause of breast cancer. Over the last 20 years, some two dozen large studies, the Nurses’ Health Study included, have so far failed to identify what that factor is. They may be inherently incapable of doing so. Nonetheless, we know that such a carcinogenic factor of diet or lifestyle exists, waiting to be identified.

These studies have also been invaluable for identifying predictors of disease — risk factors — and this information can then guide physicians in weighing the risks and benefits of putting a particular patient on a particular drug. The studies have repeatedly confirmed that high blood pressure is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and that obesity is associated with an increased risk of most of our common chronic diseases, but they have not told us what it is that raises blood pressure or causes obesity. Indeed, if you ask the more skeptical epidemiologists in the field what diet and lifestyle factors have been convincingly established as causes of common chronic diseases based on observational studies without clinical trials, you’ll get a very short list: smoking as a cause of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, sun exposure for skin cancer, sexual activity to spread the papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer and perhaps alcohol for a few different cancers as well.

Richard Peto, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford University, phrases the nature of the conflict this way: “Epidemiology is so beautiful and provides such an important perspective on human life and death, but an incredible amount of rubbish is published,” by which he means the results of observational studies that appear daily in the news media and often become the basis of public-health recommendations about what we should or should not do to promote our continued good health.

In January 2001, the British epidemiologists George Davey Smith and Shah Ebrahim, co-editors of The International Journal of Epidemiology, discussed this issue in an editorial titled “Epidemiology — Is It Time to Call It a Day?” They noted that those few times that a randomized trial had been financed to test a hypothesis supported by results from these large observational studies, the hypothesis either failed the test or, at the very least, the test failed to confirm the hypothesis: antioxidants like vitamins E and C and beta carotene did not prevent heart disease, nor did eating copious fiber protect against colon cancer.

The Nurses’ Health Study is the most influential of these cohort studies, and in the six years since the Davey Smith and Ebrahim editorial, a series of new trials have chipped away at its credibility. The Women’s Health Initiative hormone-therapy trial failed to confirm the proposition that H.R.T. prevented heart disease; a W.H.I. diet trial with 49,000 women failed to confirm the notion that fruits and vegetables protected against heart disease; a 40,000-woman trial failed to confirm that a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin prevented colorectal cancer and heart attacks in women under 65. And this June, yet another clinical trial — this one of 1,000 men and women with a high risk of colon cancer — contradicted the inference from the Nurses’s study that folic acid supplements reduced the risk of colon cancer. Rather, if anything, they appear to increase risk.

The implication of this track record seems hard to avoid. “Even the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the biggest and best of these studies, cannot be used to reliably test small-to-moderate risks or benefits,” says Charles Hennekens, a principal investigator with the Nurses’ study from 1976 to 2001. “None of them can.”

Science can't tell you anything your parents didn't: don't smoke; be sun sensible; practice monogamy; and drink in moderation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2007 4:21 PM


Your final comment is to health care, as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are to the computer I am sitting at! You get it! I hope someone is rewarding you for being a visionary, yet the arts, such as the art of understanding health, notoriously lag behind technology in recognition.

It took a lot more for me to come to the same conclusion you did. Spending years researching cancer prevention, pulling apart every study, comparing every continent...we drew the same conclusion you did in one sentence (although ours was that our grandparents knew best!).

Sure, life expectancy was shorter back then. Infectious disease and complications of pregnancy were responsible for many deaths. Yet, if people survived to age 20, their life expectancy was not that much different from now. Perhaps better, as our children have now been predicted to have shorter lives than our own, due to obesity.

My co-author, an epidemiologist and I, published a book that evaluates everything that may possibly increase or decrease the risk of cancer based on credible studies, from environmental exposures to diet (we could not find a book that did this so we wrote one). In our concluding remarks we talk about all of the ways our grandparents did this intuitively and lived healthy lives into their 90s.

They didn't smoke, they were careful in the sun (they made sure to get outside for vitamin D however), they didn't eat processed foods...the list goes on. But another big difference is that they listened when questions arose. Instead of big debates over trans fats, acrylamide and the latest food dye scare, they listened, and got rid of lead based paints and asbestos.

Hopefully our kids will listen to mom and grandma when we recommend home cooked food instead of fast food, and playing outside over the monitor of their choice. The studies will go back and forth for years...

Lynne Eldridge MD
Author, "Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time: Practical Advice for Preventing Cancer"

Posted by: Lynne Eldridge MD at September 15, 2007 11:54 PM

"Eat in moderation" belongs in there too, or are you just doing your best not to hurt the feelings of 'people of size.'

Posted by: Bruno at September 16, 2007 11:04 AM

This is a very true story.

Posted by: Kelly at October 6, 2007 12:52 AM

Should be take any claims made by epidemiologitst seriously when their replication rate is ~20%? See Ioannidis, JAMA 2005.

Posted by: Stan at October 7, 2007 10:41 PM