Here we go again. Headlines across America blaring lines like, “Coffee may reduce stroke risk.”
It was a big study, but an observational study. Not a trial. Not an experiment. And, as we say so many times on this website that you could almost join along with the chorus, observational studies have inherent limitations that should always be mentioned in stories. They can’t prove cause and effect. They can show a strong statistical association, but they can’t prove cause and effect. So you can’t prove benefit or risk reduction. And stories should say that.
“The problem with this type of study is that there are too many factors unaccounted for and association does not prove causality, said Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center at Duke University Medical Center.
“Subjects were asked about their past coffee consumption in a questionnaire and then followed over time. There is no way to know if they changed their behavior,” Goldstein said.
And, he noted, there was no control for medication use or other potential but unmeasured factors.
“The study is restricted to a Scandinavian population, and it is not clear, even if there is a relationship, that it would be present in more diverse populations. I think that it can be concluded, at least in this population, that there was not an increased risk of stroke among coffee drinkers,” he said.”
When you don’t explain the limitations of observational studies — and/or when you imply that cause and effect has been established — you lose credibility with some readers. And you should. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*