Junkfood Science: Secrets to healthful aging?

November 17, 2006

Secrets to healthful aging?

Did this research in the news really prove that longevity is the reward of being trim and living right?

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This story is from a study, published in JAMA, on 5,820 middle-aged Japanese-American men from the Hawaiian island of Oahu. About 44% of the men lived beyond 85 years of age. The researchers identified 11% of the men who had what they dubbed “exceptional survival” because they were free from certain chronic health conditions. The researchers then sorted through a database of sociodemographic characteristics of the men, looking for correlations. They identified nine things the men without exceptional survival had in common: high blood sugars, smoking, being overweight, having weak grips, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, drinking two or more alcoholic drinks a day, not completing high school and being unmarried.

Do these associations hold the secret to long life? Or could it be something(s) the researchers didn’t even look for at all? Or could these be markers for the real cause, such as socioeconomic class, activity or genetics? We’ll never know because these researchers didn’t test anything. They did what is called a data dredge.

It has become popular to dump “overweight” into any list of “bad” habits and traits and, like this reporter, assume that being fat is the most important one. It has reached the point of silliness. The difference in weight between the men who died and those who survived “exceptionally healthy” was a mere 3 pounds. For all practical purposes that is meaningless.

There were, however, other differences among the men that might point to the reasons for their health differences better than those 3 pounds. For instance, the men who died before age 85 as compared to the exceptional survivors:

· Smoked two times more

· Were three times more likely to drink excessively (greater than 3 drinks a day)

· Were 2 1/2 times more likely to be diabetic

· Were twice as likely to be unmarried

This study failed to demonstrate that being fat, or any thing else, decreases our chances of living a long life.

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