Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Red wine doesn't prolong life -- we whine about reductive science

We're still away traveling, but we can't ignore this story: red wine isn't magic after all!  The BBC reports that in a study of 800 Italians in Chianti, red wine neither prevented heart disease nor prolonged life.  The association between red wine and health has long been reported, and the ingredient that has been thought to be responsible, resveratrol, had been identified years ago.  It's supposed to reduce inflammation, and associated disease.  Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around this reductive finding, with yet further studies of its effects ongoing, and producers of the chemical gearing up to encourage people to take a resveratrol capsule every morning, along with their statins.   The rare miracle that also allows pleasure!

Some epidemiological studies have suggested that chocolate, red wine and berries, which all contain resveratrol, are associated with reduced risk of heart disease and longer life and that this may explain why the French, who generally have a high fat diet, have less heart disease than the US.  But the Italian study doesn't show the same effect; nor did researchers find any indication of reduced inflammation.
Prof Semba said: "The thinking was that certain foods are good for you because they contain resveratrol. We didn't find that at all.
"The story of resveratrol turns out to be another case where you get a lot of hype about health benefits that doesn't stand the test of time."
He says any benefits of drinking wine or eating dark chocolate or berries, if they are there, must come from other shared ingredients. And it's not clear how much you might need to eat or drink.
"These are complex foods, and all we really know from our study is that the benefits are probably not due to resveratrol."
Even so, the results of this study will be ignored by many.  Resveratrol must be protective. Again, according to the BBC,
Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "The results of this study, while interesting, will not change the dietary advice we provide. People should continue to eat plenty of fruit, veg and wholegrains. 
"We recognise the need to learn more about the action of resveratrol though, so are funding research into its reported disease-combating properties and how it affects the heart and circulatory system. 
"This research is vital as it could form the basis of future medicines."
So, yet again, reductive epidemiology is turned on its head. Or, should be. Complexity and confounding are serious, inherent issues in understanding cause and effect, and yet study design after study design after study design ignores the issues.  According to the BBC, "Experts say more research is needed to get a definitive answer."  No, what's needed instead is the recognition that there is no definitive answer -- reductive science isn't going to prevent heart disease and prolong lives.

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