Statistical blips vs long term trends

We are told that we need to bring up our children to be citizens who can be critical of stories in the news and call bullshit on things that are bullshit. Most of the bullshit you see are stories that deal with new “scientific finding”, which are really just a press release by some organization who did a half baked epidemiological study on some small group.

Today gives us the winner headline “US Cancer Deaths Drop for the First Time”.

I don’t doubt that deaths due to cancer may have been less in 2005 than they were in 2004. However, if you read further into the story, I think it’s a huge leap to assume that this trend will continue.

In fact, if you understand why cancer deaths have been increasing the first place, you’ll understand why it’s almost impossible for them to decrease in the coming years.

If you were asked the question, “Why have cancer rates been going up in the 20th Century?” you might say it had something to do with smoking, nutrition, or chemicals in the environment. All of those things may have played a part, but it was a minor part. The real reason cancer deaths have been going up for 70 years is that we are living longer. Human beings are mortal. We have to die. If we aren’t dying of the cholera, or the typhus, or a battle axe in the face, we have to be dying of something else. While cancer deaths have gone up, life expectancy has gone up with it. Cancer is predominately a disease of the old. If people live longer, they are more apt to get cancer than if they died at a young age.

It’s as simple as that.

We certainly are making big strides in our ability to fight cancer. These efforts, the fewer people smoking, and other trends may offset cancer deaths. However, until a real “cure” is discovered, demographics will overwhelm anything done by science or lifestyle. The baby boomers are now hitting 60 and they will be dying at a faster and faster rate every year. They will be getting cancer at faster rates and dying from it. It can’t really be avoided.

If we should ever find a cure for cancer, then we will probably see an increase in people dying from heart disease or other ailments. Mortality always wins. We have to die from something.

Today’s news is welcome, but it’s not a long term trend. A far better measure of our ability to treat cancer is survival rates (ala Lance Armstrong) rather than counting cancer deaths.

By Gary

3 dimples. 7 continents. 130 countries.