Illusory Causality? “Teeth Improve Memory”
As I’ve noted before, I keep a collection of dubious causal claims, at least in terms of the headline. Here‘s another that caught my attention.
Well, there are multiple explanations for this odd-sounding claim. The researchers claim that it’s the chewing process that brings blood to the brain, with obvious benefits. Makes sense, but again, the headline doesn’t say that chewing improves memory. So maybe the relationship is indirect.
Admitting that I haven’t read the original articles, there are a host of other possible explanations, depending upon the researchers’ techniques. By the description in this pop press article, the study does not employ random assignment (seems a bit unethical to do such a thing), so the causal claim is a problem. For example, my first reaction was that people with generally better health (i.e., nutrition, attention to healthy living) may experience better memory and better dental health. Maybe genetics are the key, and those predisposed to suffer mental degradation are also predisposed to “dental degradation” if we can call it that. Heck, it’s even possible that sugary foods, which we know contribute to tooth loss, also contribute to memory loss.
The point is that the researchers can’t rule that out, and although I’m confident that their article includes the relevant caveats, the press tends to simplify stories to make claims that the authors don’t intend.
Let’s repeat the mantra: Correlation does not imply causation!
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