We’re told on a regular basis something to the effect of, “a new study shows that people with better grip strength live longer.” By the way, this is a real study that was presented just this way. In order to understand what this study shows, we have to go way past the headline.Before we even get to the meat and potatoes of the study, there are a few things we need to check. And most of this is impossible to check with just a newspaper article. You really need to access the actual study write-up to really validate it.
But there are a few things you can look for that will be red flags. The first and biggest one, does the party conducting the study have an agenda? What do I mean here. For instance, most of the information we have now about human hydration comes from studies conducted by the Gatorade Sport Science Institute. Do you think they have a reason to conduct studies that will show a particular result? Hmmm…
This kind of goes along with the above point, but who funded the study. Scientists and research departments are always looking for grants to conduct research. If the study was funded by someone who would have an interest in a certain result, then the research team has to be concerned about results that would jeopardize a future grant.
If you can actually read the summary of the study, then do. That is provided you have any interest at all in the information it presents. If it’s a study about how driving a Fiat in Japan means you’re more like to be in a car accident and you drive a Ford in German, you probably don’t care.
The summary gives a brief overview of what was done in the study and the results of the study. It may not give you enough information to evaluate the study completely, but it will probably tell you if it’s worth going any further. I can often determine whether a study was conclusive enough or not from the summary. If it’s not conclusive enough, I don’t trust the results. And best of all, you can usually read the summary for free.
Now, if you really want to get serious about the study’s information, then you should buy access to the full study. Admittedly, they can be painfully boring and dry. Imagine your high school chemistry class, with none of the projects, all the funny symbols, no pictures, and you have to read everything that happens in class. I’m a dork so I often find studies that I would like to read straight through, but that’s why I share info here. So you don’t have to!
Especially in the realm of health and nutrition, studies are often too over simplified to be truly valid. Things like vegetarian diets are healthier than meat based diets often don’t disclose the quality of meat used in the study as though all sources are equal. A study I heard about today talked about a high protein diet increasing the risk of cancer, where high protein was considered 20% of the diet. Very low by my standards.
In the case of the example about grip strength, a little common sense could tell why the title of that study is misleading. All you have to do is consider the lifestyle of someone with a strong grip. That person is probably physically active. So logically, is it the strong grip that makes the person live longer or the lifestyle that led to the strong grip?
One of my favorite examples of pseudo science comes from a Gatorade Sports Science Institute study that states that we should hydrate as much and as often as can be tolerated during exercise, when the race results of marathons patently disprove that this is a performance boon as the runners who lose the most weight during a race virtually always win. FYI, that means they lost the most water weight. Check out Waterlogged by Dr. Timothy Noakes if you want learn more about hydration!
Many research studies at this point are incredibly biased just because of the system through which they are funded. When a corporation can hire a third party lab to conduct a study using the corporation’s test designs, the study can’t be unbiased. This routinely happens in the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, it’s how new drugs receive FDA approval.
My point here isn’t to say that every study that comes out is BS. My point is to make you question what you see and hear related to studies. This is especially true for things that we’ve long held as true that just don’t make sense. I keep coming back to hydration, but I always found it hard to believe the human body was too stupid to know when it was thirsty…
If the information is pertinent, do a little digging on your own. If it’s not pertinent, then forget it ever happened. But don’t just swallow the information without a second thought! Make your own decision based on the information available. And know how to get the information. PubMed is pretty good place to start!