4 Medical Research Terms You Need to Know
By Kate Gardner
Anger can give you a heart attack or stroke! Dark chocolate lowers your blood pressure! Drinking wine will help you live longer!
Each of these statements is true ... kind of. Every day we read articles about the latest findings in medical research. Some alarm us, hinting that our risk for getting sick is much higher than we thought. Other articles excite us with the possibility of new treatments or interventions that we think will keep us from getting sick at all. But according to the British Psychological Society, when medical research is reported in the media it is often done in a way meant more to grab our attention than to accurately inform us. How are we to make sense of it all?
Medical research has its own language and it's important to understand that language when you're reading about a study. Here are a few basic research terms that can help.
Causal - If a study finds a causal relationship it means that one thing causes another. For example, running on a treadmill causes your heart rate to go up.
Correlational - If a study finds a correlational relationship it means that two things happened at the same time, though one did not necessarily cause the other. An example would be that the taller a person is, the more they are likely to weigh. One doesn't cause the other, but they often occur together.
Absolute risk - Absolute risk tells us the generic, overall risk of something happening. This includes statements like three out of 10 people will get cancer in their lifetime or one-third of people over 65 suffer falls with injury each year.
Relative risk - Relative risk is when you compare the chances of something happening between two different groups. An example of relative risk would be to say that smokers have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers
How It Applies to You
Scientists are learning more about diseases and finding new ways to treat them. When we read articles about amazing research findings, it's tempting to apply what we've read to ourselves. It's important not to get carried away. Much of what we read doesn't prove that one thing causes another and none of these articles can tell us about our own personal risk. These are things that can only be determined by working with our healthcare providers.
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