Flip-Flops: A Summer Must Have; A Scientific Nightmare

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: May 26, 2010

Understanding and Interpreting News on Menopause

Flip-flops are part of the summer spirit. They make it possible for the summer breeze to tickle your toes in the searing sun. We lounge by the pool with them while wearing swimsuits and holding strawberry daiquiris. They are our comfort and coolness in the hot, sticky weather; the essence of summer. But, when thought about in a different sense, the term “flip-flop” can take on another meaning with an ambiguous connotation.

In this context, our once beloved fashion accessory beckons confusion. Menopause news seems to “flip-flop” and change direction all the time! It is often difficult to get a straight answer when experts say one thing and then they seem to turn around and say another.

The health world is constantly changing as science advances. Results from scientific studies are released in various forms of media on a regular basis. We are continually swarmed with new data and reports on the latest therapies for menopause relief. Many times, the information we receive seems contradictory.

Classic Flip Flop Style

The classic case of such flip-flopping in menopause is the hormone therapy question. Before the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), many women found great relief in hormone therapy.

When negative results were released from WHI regarding hormone therapy and associated health risks, we began to worry. Many people stopped the treatment because they were concerned about the safety. We were instantly swarmed with negative WHI news without really understanding how the study was conducted or how the results were reported.

After the initial panic from the WHI results subsided, follow-up studies and reinterpretations of WHI data transitioned into a new set of recommendations. With this new research and new results, the original recommendation to discontinue hormone therapy was revised. The use of hormone therapy is still heavily debated among the scientific community and will continue to be as research slowly moves forward.

Flip Flop Savvy

Science is a dynamic process and medical research is continually changing. Many people perform studies on similar research and report results in different ways. It’s not a mystery then why results are not always the same! As new and better research is conducted on a particular topic, conclusions that once seemed to make sense can be reversed.

The mass media is responsible for a lot of the confusion and frustration the public feels about health research. Science does not always fit into the media’s nicely painted “cut and dry” picture. The latest science news is not always the best news but journalism is a reactive industry and can sometimes sensationalize news. Often times, “newsworthy” stories are short pieces on single studies. The public then loses focus of the “big picture” and easily forgets how the single study is a small piece to the larger scientific puzzle.

“What is key though, and what drives health recommendations is the weight of evidence on a particular topic—what all the results as a whole point to. The research process is like placing stones on an old fashioned balance scale. When enough weight accumulates on one side, the scale tips in favor of a particular recommendation. And the more weight there is on one side, the stronger the recommendation is and the more evidence it would take to change it,” says Harvard School of Public Health medical professionals.

“To carry this analogy further, the scale’s likelihood of tipping reflects not only the number of stones placed on one scale, but also the size of those stones. Bigger stones will make the scale tip faster than smaller ones. Likewise, big, well-designed studies tend to play a more important role in establishing a relationship—and in shaping health recommendations—than smaller, less-well-designed studies”.

Tips to Understand and Interpret Meno-News

Interpreting scientific studies is a difficult task that can be frustrating and complicated. The most important part is to remember the big picture. When you hear particularly astounding results from the media, keep these questions in mind:

  • Are they simply reporting the results of a single study? If so, where does it fit in with other studies on the topic? Only very rarely would a single study be influential enough for people to change their behaviors based on the results.
  • How large is the study? Large studies often provide more reliable results than small studies.
  • Did the study look at real disease endpoints, like heart disease or osteoporosis? Chronic diseases, like heart disease and osteoporosis often take many decades to develop. To get around waiting that long, researchers will sometimes look at markers for these diseases, like narrowing of the arteries or bone density. These markers, though don’t always develop into the disease.

-from Harvard School of Public Health

Also keep in mind, menopause research is not an “exact science”. The body is a complex biological system that scientific research tries to make sense of. Many groups of scientists studying related topics can often publish contradictory reports despite good research techniques. It happens! Don’t get lost in the flip-flop.

Rethinking Menopause

Your physician should describe research findings in detail and offer you guidance on the use of hormone therapy. Making an informed decision about hormone therapy can be an extremely challenging feat for women. It’s quite necessary for women to have a thorough understanding regarding the risks and benefits of hormone therapy and discuss this with their doctors based upon research outcomes. Your doctor should also discuss alternative therapies and advise you of health screenings you should have at menopause.

And, remember, even the top experts in the menopause field still don’t have many of the answers to questions about hormone therapy. At present, the Food and Drug Administration suggests that women who want to use hormone therapy to control troublesome symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness, use the lowest effective dose for the shortest time.