Beware the Pervasive Reach of Bias – Fish Oil Study Questioned

“Striking a Nerve: Bad Odor to This Fish Oil Study” was the catchy and misleading title for a MedPage headline last week. The “fishy study” to which the cynic refers was published in The American Academy of Neurology. Not exactly a shabby journal. The authors – William Harris, PhD and James Pottala, PhD – erudite and prolific contributors to omega-3 fatty acid research examined the brains of aging women from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study and noted a statistically significant association between hippocampal size and omega-3 RBC (Red Blood Cell) levels. In other words, women with low levels of the omega-3s DHA and EPA had more hippocampal atrophy than those with high levels. The importance here is that dementia is frighteningly prevalent (affecting 20% of women) and the hippocampus is likely playing a causal role in its development. Therefore, if we can identify factors – whatever they may be – that prevent hippocampal atrophy, we must pay close attention and examine them further. This is precisely what the authors stated; their findings were encouraging and hypothesis generating. In fact, their final statement, “This study thus adds to the growing literature suggesting that higher omega-3 FA tissue levels, which can be achieved by dietary changes, may hold promise for delaying cognitive aging and/or dementia” does not declare certainty, simply solid hope.

Why then would this study be unfairly condemned? This is a somewhat rhetorical question as I don’t have a clear answer. What I can say with certainty though is that no one should read or listen to an opinion and accept it as fact without first going to the primary source. Everyone would agree this to be true in politics. We must now sadly acknowledge its validity in the world of science as well.

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