It’s always difficult to draw firm conclusions from epidemiological research. No matter how large the sample size and how carefully conducted the study, it’s seldom possible to be sure that the result you have found is what you were looking for, and not some kind of bias or confounding.
So when I heard in the news yesterday that overweight and obese people were at reduced risk of dementia, my first thought was “I wonder if that’s really true?”
In many ways, it’s a pretty good study. Certainly no complaints about the sample size: they analysed data on nearly 2 million people. With a median follow-up time of over 9 years, their analysis was based on a long enough time period to be meaningful. They had also thought about the obvious problem with looking at obesity and dementia, namely that obese people may be less likely to get dementia not because obesity protects them against dementia, but just because they are more likely to die of an obesity-related disease before they are old enough to develop dementia.
The authors did a sensitivity analysis in which they assumed that patients who died during the observation period had twice the risk of developing dementia had they lived of patients who survived to the end of follow-up. Although that weakened the negative association between overweight and dementia, it was still present.
There are, of course, other ways to do this. Perhaps it might have been appropriate to use a competing risks survival model instead of the Poisson model they used for their statistical analysis, and if you were going to be picky, you could say their choice of statistical analysis was a bit fishy (sorry, couldn’t resist).
But I don’t think the method of analysis is the big problem here.
For a start, although some of the most obvious confounders (age, sex, smoking, drinking, relevant medication use, diabetes, and previous myocardial infarction) were adjusted for in the analysis, there was no adjustment for socioeconomic status or education level, which is a big omission.
But more importantly, I think the major limitation of these results comes from what is known as the healthy survivor effect.
Let me explain.
The people followed up in the study were all aged over 40 at the start. But there was no upper age limit. Some people were aged over 90 at the start. And not surprisingly, most of the cases of dementia occurred in older people. Only 18 cases of dementia occurred in those aged 40-44, whereas over 12,000 cases were observed in those aged 80-84. So it’s really the older age groups who are dominating the analysis. Over half the cases of dementia occurred in people aged > 80, and over 90% occurred in people aged > 70.
Now, let’s think about those 80+ year olds for a minute.
There is reasonably good evidence that obese people die younger, on average, than those of normal weight. So the obese people who were aged > 80 at the start of the study are probably not normal obese people. They are probably healthier than average obese people. Many obese people who are less healthy than average would be dead before they are 80, so would never have the chance to be included in that age group of the study.
So in other words, the old obese people in the study are not typical obese people: they are unusually healthy obese people.
That may be because they have good genes or it may be because something about their lifestyle is keeping them healthy, but one way or another, they have managed to live a long life despite their obesity. This is an example of the healthy survivor effect.
There will also be a healthy survivor effect at play in the people of normal weight at the upper end of the age range, but that will probably be less marked, as they haven’t had to survive despite obesity.
I think it is therefore possible that this healthy survivor effect may have skewed the results. The people with obesity may have been at less risk of dementia not because their obesity protected them, but because they were a biased subset of unusually healthy obese people.
This does not, of course, mean that obesity doesn’t protect against dementia. Maybe it does. One thing that would have been interesting would be to see the results broken down by the type of dementia. It is hard to believe that obesity would protect against vascular dementia, when on the whole it is a risk factor for other vascular diseases, but the hypothesis that it could protect against Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t seem so implausible.
What it does mean is that we have to be really careful when interpreting the results of epidemiological studies such as this one. It is always extremely hard to know to what extent the various forms of bias that can creep into epidemiological studies have influenced the results.