Health research

Science shows complexity abounds

Research into the reasons behind what ails us and how we can live more healthful lives is a broad and deep part of the sciences. We would not hazard a guess at how many studies are under way at this moment, in this country and in others, but we expect the quantity is considerable.

That is for good reason. If you are older than 40, good health is always on your mind.

But, occasionally, studies result in some surprises that remind us of the complexities of the human body. Take the exercise studies publicized last week by a Louisiana State College system research institute faculty member that showed 10 percent of the 1,700 participants did worse on one of the factors that can lead to heart disease, and 7 percent did worse on two factors. Participants went through an exercise regimen and were then tested for levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin, for example, well-known predictors for heart disease. While a solid percentage of the participants improved their scores, and some were unchanged, 10 percent and 7 percent did worse.

Punsters quickly said, ah ha, no exercise for me.

What more serious observers pointed out was that while the factors are not in dispute we will not know for decades which of the participants in the study actually will have to deal with heart disease; a health-status snapshot is not sufficient.

So, too, the widespread belief that excess salt consumption leads to higher blood pressure and hypertension. In a column in Sunday’s New York Times, health policy researcher Gary Taubes claims that while low-salt diets have been a national crusade for some 40 years, the connection to health outcomes was and is uncertain.

Other factors could be at play. And, in fact, he writes that there is evidence that consuming too little salt is more dangerous than too much.

When contrarian results challenge long-held conventional – if unproven – thinking, they tend to be ignored, says Taubes.

So, some salt joins a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine, having a spouse, a pet, friends, sex and a college degree in the ingredients that lead to a more healthful and longer life. And then along comes a study that at that moment asserts that exercise is dangerous – for a few.

Other recent studies make the case that Americans are over-tested, resulting in negative side effects from the mistaken need to take action, but that is topic for another time.

Plotting the path to good health is a difficult task.