Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Drink up

A large study done at the university of Uppsala in Sweden has found a very large link between drinking cow milk and dying young.  Of course the clickbait titles of articles about this get the science all twisted up but when you actually look at the data it is pretty shocking.  In a large group of middle aged women the subgroup that drank three or more glasses of cow milk a day was found to be almost twice as likely to die over the course of the study as the subgroup that drank less than one glass a day.  (The men in the study did not show this same trend.)

This illustrates the problems with science and medical reporting pretty clearly.  We don't actually know if the group that drank more cow milk did so for some other reason that caused their illnesses, if something else is correlated with both cow milk consumption and illness, or if there are other confounding factors.  Say for example higher income people drank far less cow milk but had access to better food and healthcare - this could produce this sort of result without saying anything about cow milk itself.  There are a lot of other things that could be going on.

Also the articles mention things like milk programs for children without noting that this has nothing to do with them.  The study examined middle aged people only and drawing broad conclusions from that data across all age groups is a very dangerous and foolish thing to do.  There is every reason to think that young people and middle aged people metabolize cow milk in different ways and have different reactions to it.  The articles also fail to adequately note that the correlation between cow milk and mortality was only found in women.  These details are extremely important when you want to get beyond raw data to begin to have a conversation about policy.  You cannot generalize a link found in 39-74 year old women to the population at large.

On the other hand I do think this tells us that the messages we get from the government and the cow milk lobby about the health benefits of cow milk are bogus.  It has always been clear that cow milk is not necessary for health but now the science is making it even more obvious that there is no medical reason at all to consume it.  We are far beyond not *needing* it, and in fact it is now obvious that it isn't even much use.  Barring this current result it generally seems that cow milk is not a harmful thing to consume but shouldn't be considered a necessity any more than carrots, dog meat, or strawberries are.

The articles are generally getting the point across that milk isn't nearly as necessary as we have been led to believe but they are doing it in a way that butchers the actual data and causes unnecessary confusion.  The truth on this topic (including the level of uncertainty in the current study being examined) is readily available and easy enough to understand that any member of the public reading it could grasp it and reach appropriate conclusions.  We need the people who write science and medical articles to take public education a lot more seriously.  It won't get as many instant clicks but it will establish a reputation for good information and that is worth a lot of clicks in the long run.

1 comment:

  1. If you find a way to get to an alternate universe where the long run matters let me know.