Archive | November, 2012

Are fish oils good for you or not ???

20 Nov

I was very impressed last week by a story in the Daily Mail finally accepting that fish oils weren’t a magical cure for any number of health problems. This made me think about ways of getting students to understand the reliability of any particular source of information. After all, reading this one article would make you think that the Mail was a useful source !

After a little thought I typed ‘fish oil’ into the search box on the Mail’s home page and came up with a whole range of ‘interesting stories, a selection of which are listed below:

11 September 2012 “Fish oil supplements ‘do NOT cut risk of heart attacks and strokes”

28 July 2012 “Are you hooked on fish oil yet? The natural wonder drug proven to treat a range of conditions”

13 June 2012 “Elderly warned that taking fish oil pills ‘does not prevent brain decline'” 

31 January 2012 “Taking fish oil during pregnancy ‘protects babies from eczema'”

28 February 2012 “New proof daily dose of fish oil does help keep your brain young”

3 January 2012 “Fish oil may hold key to leukaemia cure”

26 October 2011 “Fish oil supplements ‘can slow growth of prostate cancer cells in just four weeks'”

31 May 2011 “Fish oil could curb binge drinking by reducing desire for alcohol”

8 July 2010 “Fish oil may cut breast cancer risk ‘by a third’ 

24 May 2010 “Health news: Why pregnant women should drink more milk, tackle knee pain with sound waves and could fish oil reduce asthma?”

20 January 2010 “Is fish oil the elixir of life ?”

11 August 2009 “Could a fish oil pill add years to your life?”

22 May 2007 “Heart attack victims should take fish oil pill daily”

15 May 2006 “Fish oil ‘boosts pupil performance'”

I’m not particular interested in the research underlying all of this, (If you are there is an excellent chapter on the ‘fish oil and brain power’ story in Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’). However this seems like a great illustration that students do not have to be experts in a particular subject to see that fish oils are unlikely to be the cure for all of these ills. It may well be, once all the research has been conducted, that fish oil does have valuable health properties but that is very different from the panacea presented above !

Is your little brother making you sick ?

16 Nov

A study has been widely reported this week that suggests that having a younger sibling causes an increase in your blood pressure. Given that heart problems as a result of high blood pressure is a leading form of premature death in many Western societies this paper would seem to be of widespread interest.

As you will see from the image above, the Daily Mail’s report of this paper is illustrated with a photograph of two caucasian children. However, merely by reading down the Mail’s story a little you discover that the paper used participants from Amazonian villages in Bolivia !

Whilst the original paper is very interesting, and the reported increases in blood pressure are intriguing, it is interesting to get students to think about what might influence rises in blood pressure in Western societies. Students should be able to readily see that trying to draw any particular conclusions about Western health problems from this sample isn’t very wise !! It’s important with a paper like this for students to realise that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the original paper, it’s they way in which the media cover it that is the problem.

Acupuncture and forgetting about the placebo effect

16 Nov

I’ve written previously about using acupuncture as an example for rational thinking, and last week I was drawn to the topic again by a series of newspaper stories about a study of the value of acupuncture in dealing with breast cancer related fatigue. A huge range of media outlets ran stories based on a paper published in the  Journal of Clinical Oncology on October 29th. The Daily Mail headlined their story ‘Acupuncture can relieve the extreme tiredness suffered by 40% of breast cancer patients”

At face value this study seems interesting, however as soon as you delve a little you find a major issue. The study compares acupuncture treatment with ‘no treatment’, there seems to have been no consideration of the placebo effect. A first sight constructing placebo acupuncture might seem difficult, however ‘sham’ acupuncture needles are available where the needle retracts into the handle rather than penetrating the skin, and studies have been conducted using such ‘sham’ acupuncture placebos.

In discussing drug trials with students they can rapidly see that the placebo effect needs to be considered. After all, no one would consider taking a drug that was no better than placebo. One would want to know that the drug actually ‘worked’. Yet with this acupuncture study we seem to being asked to accept a different standard of ‘proof’ than for more conventional medical treatment.

In addition to a discussion of the placebo effect this story could be used to illustrate a couple of more complex points. The idea that ‘alternative’ medicine should be subject to a different standard of ‘proof’ than ‘conventional’ medicine is an interesting one. Equally, the impact of this story on someone currently suffering from breast cancer related fatigue is also worthy of discussion.

%d bloggers like this: