Recent research suggests ...

By IAIN MURRAY, Special to UPI  |  Dec. 12, 2002 at 3:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- It's a killer piece of news at first glance. If something that affects one in five American men also gives you a significantly higher risk of heart attack, then surely people need to hear about it, right?

That's what ABC news did with their coverage of "metabolic syndrome" on Dec. 3. They reported a new Finnish study (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) that suggested that men with the syndrome "are at significantly greater risk of dying from a heart attack." The report quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as saying that one in five American men are afflicted with the syndrome, which is actually a combination of certain health indicators. To qualify as having the syndrome, a man must exhibit at least three of the following signs: a large amount of abdominal fat, high blood sugar, high triglicerides, low "good cholesterol" levels and high blood pressure.

But there are two problems here, neither of which was mentioned in the ABC report. The first is that doctors themselves can't agree on what the syndrome really is. There are two competing definitions, depending on the symptom levels needed to qualify, rather than just the one ABC gave us, and under one of these definitions the study found no difference in heart attack risk.

More importantly, the study gives us no indication of the absolute risk of death, just relative risk. It does tell us, however, that out of the 1,200 participants, only 27 died of heart disease in the 15-year time period of the study. So the absolute risk for getting heart disease if you have metabolic syndrome is probably pretty small.

The one in five Americans exhibiting the syndrome probably have plenty of other reasons to lose weight, lower their blood pressure and change their cholesterol. "Metabolic syndrome" doesn't seem to qualify as an additional one.

When three major studies were published in the British Medical Journal (a publication with an international readership and influence, it must be stressed) on Nov. 21 linking marijuana to mental illness, only United Press International covered the story in the United States. One has to ask why.

Of the three studies, two looked at the link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. The first study re-examined a 20-year-old study of 50,000 Swedish military conscripts from the 1950s that had noticed a link between marijuana use and schizophrenia. The study had been questioned on the basis that schizophrenics might choose to medicate themselves with marijuana. However, by looking again at the data, the researchers were able to conclude that marijuana use was the most likely cause for the increased rate of developing schizophrenia over the next 30 years. The 300 percent increase in risk among people who had used the drug 50 times or more is enough to satisfy most epidemiologists that a causal link may well be present for such heavy users.

The second study looked at New Zealand youngsters aged 15-18 and concluded that early marijuana use increased the risk of schizophrenia later in life, while the third, from a study of Australian teenagers, indicated that teenage girls who use marijuana suffer an increased risk of depression in later life. Daily use increased the risk five-fold. This did not seem to be influenced by depressives being more likely to use marijuana. As one of the researchers wrote, "Measures to reduce frequent and heavy recreational use seem warranted."

Yet these major findings, published in a major journal, relating to a significant impact from marijuana on public mental health received not a word of attention in the nation's print newspapers. Contrast that with the attention given to a study by RAND Corporation, published in an obscure British journal, Addiction, that postulated an alternative explanation to marijuana's supposed "gateway drug" effects.

The Washington Post, for example, said Dec. 3 that "an independent U.S. study concluded yesterday that marijuana use does not lead teenagers to experiment with hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine. The study by the private, nonprofit Rand Drug Policy Research Center rebutted the theory that marijuana acts as a so-called gateway drug to more harmful narcotics, a key argument against legalizing pot in the United States."

But this characterization was flat out wrong, as the study's authors were forced to point out in a press release that received little attention. They stated that all they had done was provide an alternative explanation for the data that shows marijuana users are up to 50 times as likely to use hard drugs as non-marijuana users.

It is true that many of the reports are based on a Reuters story that got the facts completely wrong, but it is interesting to wonder why an incorrect story that suggests that one argument against marijuana use might be wrong got so much print space (17 citations in the NEXIS database), when a genuine story about demonstrated severe mental health effects of the drug received no play at all.

Finally, you might be interested to know that a recent Roper poll found that 72 percent of Americans think the government has not told the public everything it knows about UFOs. Who paid for the poll? The Sci-Fi Channel.

This column examines the facts behind recent statistical studies that have made the news but been misinterpreted, failed to make the news for some reason or are just plain weird.

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