An extra helping of processed red meat a day means 2 more deaths per 1,000 people per year - or less than a .2% increased risk of death.
Thankfully Carl translated it even further:
The results translate into a typical 40-year-old man in the study living to 79 instead of 80 if he chooses to add a hamburger a day to his diet. That extra year may not seem worth the change in diet to some red-meat fans. When Risk Is A Red-Meat Issue, Wall Street Journal, March 23.
Aha. That's what the meat-lovers (or sanctimonious vegetarians, hand raised) wanna know.
How does it effect me!
If only all health writers would translate the results into what they mean for the average cog in the industrial-food complex.
Unfortunately for most of us the media favors the first, more dramatic statements up top that reflect relative risk.
They tell us how one group compares to another, in this case, those who eat a smaller amount of red-meat versus an extra serving (not sure how much exactly, didn't read the study). Researchers and public health wonks particularly enjoy relative risk because it gives a measure of the success (or failure) of one treatment, behavior, new drug, etc and if you're interested in the welfare of many people (i.e. entire populations) than you'd better consider this risk. The FDA clearly should care whether a new pharmaceutical has an effect and the only way to do this is to compare a group who didn't get the new drug with one that did.
Of course relative risks appeal to the media as well given their more sensational nature. Twice as ill. 150% more cases of autism. Five times as likely to die.
Relative risk doesn't give us a sense of the absolute risk or what we commonly think of as risk. We normal folk generally think about overall risk:
- The one in whatever risk of being killed on the way to school by the mother driving the enormous SUV while smoking, chatting on the smartphone and passing out goldfish.
- How many children out of the total number of skiiers ever to visit the slopes plunge to their deaths riding the chair lift.
Speaking of missing controls, suspect links and heightened drama... let's turn to the parenting realm.
Take breastfeeding. We often hear about relative risks in the media. For instance, breastfed kids suffer 30% fewer ear infections, 50% fewer colds, half the number of behavioral problems. Formula babies face twice the illnesses, three times the emotional distress, blah blah blah. Less often do we get the absolute risk - how many ear infections or colds a kid may get if he isn't breast-fed vs breast-fed.
I'm making up the stats but check the next claim in the news. The exception seems to be studies finding links between breast-feeding and intelligence that rarely fail to describe how many IQ points a baby looses from slurping formula.
Here's an article in the New York Times last year that reported on a study finding formula-fed babies given solid food before 4 months face an increased risk of obesity (see my post on the study). Tara Parker-Pope, who writes the Well column and thus reports on plenty of health studies doesn't fail to deliver the relative risk:
...formula-fed babies who had been introduced to solid foods before 4 months of age were six times more likely to be obese by age 3. Timing of Baby Food Tied to Obesity Risk, New York Times, Well, February 2011.