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An Early Demented Example of Big-Data Silliness

August 21, 2015

According to an article in Health Data Management, the Center for Brain Health at NorthShore University Health System in the Chicago area will use the organization’s electronic health records (Epic) and “advanced analytics” to “get ahead” of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Many of the typical health scare tactics are in play here: early detection, suffering that can be prevented, 20 “well-defined risk factors” for Alzheimer’s, population management, technological solutions to complex problems, “DNA fingerprints,” and digital health devices.

This might be even marginally reasonable, except there is not a shred of good evidence that anything can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s. It’s not that researchers haven’t tried. Many interventions have simply failed: anti-inflammatory medications, ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, and even cholesterol-lowering statins, among others. There is not even good evidence that brain exercises are helpful.

To sum this even further, here is a quote from an NIH panel in 2010: The panel determined that there is currently no evidence of even moderate scientific quality supporting the association of any modifiable factor—dietary supplement intake, use of prescription or non-prescription drugs, diet, exercise, and social engagement—with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The evidence surrounding risk reduction for cognitive decline is similarly limited. Low-grade evidence shows weak associations between many lifestyle choices and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

So once again, a large healthcare system uses fear to sell expensive technology and false hope to drum up business for its system. The polished pitches of early detection and prevention are again booming over the loudspeakers to draw in naive paying customers. The promise of big data to find hidden medical secrets must feel like the time of Mr. Spock asking a computer any question and getting a rapid answer has finally arrived. (random thought: Will Gene Rodenberry’s wife’s voice be used by Epic to spout out the answers?)

The ghost of P. T. Barnum must be chuckling.

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