I woke up to the news this morning that there has been an alarming increase in the number of strokes in people aged 40-54.
My first thought was “this has been sponsored by a stroke charity, so they probably have an interest in making the figures seem alarming”. So I wondered how robust the research was that led to this conclusion.
The article above did not link to a published paper describing the research. So I looked on the Stroke Association’s website. There, I found a press release. This press release also didn’t link to any published paper, which makes me think that there is no published paper. It’s hard to believe a press release describing a new piece of research would fail to tell you if it had been published in a respectable journal.
The press release describes data on hospital admissions provided by the NHS, which shows that the number of men aged 40 to 54 admitted to hospital with strokes increased from 4260 in the year 2000 to to 6221 in 2014, and the equivalent figures for women were an increase from 3529 to 4604.
Well, yes, those figures are certainly substantial increases. But there could be various different reasons for them, some worrying, others reassuring.
It is possible, as the press release certainly wants us to believe, that the main reason for the increase is that strokes are becoming more common. However, it is also possible that recognition of stroke has improved, or that stroke patients are more likely now to get the hospital treatment they need than in the past. Both of those latter explanations would be good things.
So how do the stroke association distinguish among those possibilities?
Well, they don’t. The press release says “It is thought that the rise is due to increasing sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles, and changes in hospital admission practice.”
“It is thought that”? Seriously? Who thinks that? And why do they think it?
It’s nice that the Stroke Association acknowledge the possibility that part of the reason might be changes in hospital admission practice, but given that the title of the press release is “Stroke rates soar among men and women in their 40s and 50s” (note: not “Rates of hospital admission due to stroke soar”), there can be no doubt which message the Stroke Association want to emphasise.
I’m sorry, but they’re going to need better evidence than “it is thought that” to convince me they have teased out the relative contributions of different factors to the rise in hospital admissions.