An article published in the Washington Post, and elsewhere I presume, on September 12, just a few days ago, suggested that seniors could be seriously at risk if they didn’t lower their Systolic blood pressure reading to below 120. The Post quoted a definitive, but unpublished, study from the National Institute of Health no less.
Imagine how terrified I must have suddenly become because my own Systolic blood pressure reading hovers around 140 (with pills). I wasn’t. But seriously, imagine how terrified many older adults must have become when they read the article in that pillar of fine reporting, The Washington Post. After all, if it’s in the Washington Post, it must be true, even if it’s an unpublished study they’re quoting. I’ve been told that many, if not most, doctors discount readings in the lower 140 range for older adults. Now it appears to be dangerous.
Well, it turns out that a few people didn’t agree, and sent off some sharply worded letters, two of which, to the Washington Post’s credit, they published. Both of the published letters were from practicing physicians.
One of the letters, written by a primary care physician from suburban Maryland, said that “many studies of the elderly have shown just the opposite: Aggressive blood-pressure control leads to more disease and disability.” I quote further from the letter: “. . . it would be irresponsible and dangerous to state that it [the study] proved anything. Only with careful inspection, and by comparing this study with others that have reached opposite conclusions, can we start to arrive at the truth.”
The other letter from a physician in Vermont (which demonstrates that people outside of DC actually read the Post) says that: “. . . recent studies have indicated that allowing mildly elevated blood pressure levels is safer for some patients, especially the frail elderly.” The letter writer goes on to say: “The bottom line is that medical knowledge is not written in stone and is often debatable — which argues strongly against the enforced use of treatment protocols and standards that Medicare and other insurance companies are mandating to demonstrate meeting what they call quality targets.”
The point is that when a story such as this is published on the front page of a National newspaper like the Washington Post, we tend to believe it, and get upset when it conflicts with what our own doctors are telling us. We should know better.
We should also be aware that no matter how great they sound, the results of one “study”, no matter how credible the author, should rarely, if ever, be relied on as true. The next month, a new “definitive” study will come along which totally refutes the findings of the first.
How many statistical studies by reputable authors do we take as gospel? How many statistical studies do we rely on when we know how easy it is to manipulate them?
My mother once told me that 87.46% of statistics used in Government studies are made up. She should know. She was a Senior Supervisor in the Statistics Division of a Government Agency (The Bureau of Mines, now part of the Department of the Interior). I asked her how she arrived at that number. She said she made it up. But she also said that while the raw statistics she worked with were mostly accurate as far as they went, the conclusions published in the Agency’s studies and reports bore little resemblance to the raw data. I would suspect that is still the case.
Enough said. Thank you for reading.