Saturday, 13 November 2010

Picking holes in substance abuse statistics

I'm pretty sure everyone will by now have seen the world's new favourite statistical finding - cocaine users over the age of 35 are seven times more likely to die than cocaine users under the age of 25. Now, it's unlike me in the extreme to get involved in anything to do with drug use, largely because no matter how hard I bloody try, I am seemingly destined to live a frustratingly clean, law-abiding lifestyle forever and also because I'd never actually advocate taking or legalising drugs because I do have my qualms about them (the children of over-protective medical professionals are destined to live their lives wrestling such internal conflicts). So yeah, don't expect it to become a running theme of my notes or anything. BUT - the statistic, which keeps being bandied about with very little further information seems very misleading to me, and although I've sat here, waiting for some nice scientists to come along and debunk it, none have appeared, so I've determined to take on the challenge myself, despite the fact I have no scientific background and everything I say will probably be wrong. So, here goes:

1.) How is this a fair comparison? The number of drug users under 25 is a MUCH smaller sample than over 35, unless people are starting their kids on coke at five, like the French do with their children and wine. More people, higher likelihood of a death occurring. This is maths for nursery school children.

2.) As I said, over 35s is a larger sample and hence includes a larger range of ages. People in their late forties and fifties taking drugs, specifically drugs like cocaine is far from unheard of (please welcome to the stage Mr Keith Richards), at the same time people in their forties and fifties are more likely to have developed additional health problems that can occur with age - high blood pressure, angina, late onset diabetes, etc. Decades of the sedentary sort of lifestyle we Westerners seem to have got down to a fine art means people in middle age are more likely to be overweight and/or out of shape. All of which means the risks of potentially harmful activity such as drug taking are significantly increased as the body is in less of an optimum condition to deal with the added strain. (Please note, I'm not saying turning 45 means you instantly become fat and unhealthy, all you need to do is eat well and keep active, just observing that a large portion of society is loathe to do this).

3.) The average 40 something cocaine user is probably not wholly new to the game. I don't think anyone knows for certain what the cumulative effects of several years of cocaine use on the system are, but I'm doubting they're good. Add to the mix that drug users are likely to be more than well acquainted with our other popular vices - alcohol and cigarettes, which we KNOW are bad for you - and yet again you're presented with someone who's not as healthy as someone who literally hasn't had time yet to build up the register of health problems that go hand in hand with an unhealthy lifestyle - so it's not a fair comparison.

So in conclusion, while all this means that yes, the over 35s do incur a higher risk of death than the under 25s if they use cocaine, it's only *technically* true, in the same way that its *technically* true that mohammed is the most popular boys name in the UK if you take into account all eleventy billion different spellings of it, and ignore the fact that it's customary in many interpretations of Islam to include the name Mohammed (or one of its variations) somewhere in a male Muslim child's name.

The promotion of this little "fact" this week has annoyed me because the very premise seems flawed in that ignores the 25-35 age group. What's their risk? Do they not exist, or matter? Once again the media has left me feeling totally disenfranchised. Perhaps the statistics for this group are anomalous, so they've been left out? Very odd, given that all things considered, 25-35 is probably the group amongst which the highest level of cocaine use occurs, being that it's expensive and a favourite of money-rich, time-poor young professionals. I don't trust this at all. Plus, it struck me as rather ageist. Like "35 is too old to have fun, and if you try you WILL DIE". Not that you need to take drugs to have fun, OBVIOUSLY, as I've written about here before, else I'd have had a spectacularly dull life up to now, and I am, quite frankly, effervescent and generally all-round brilliant at parties; but it does have that tone about it, whereas in actual fact, if you're an otherwise healthy person in their thirties or forties, I can't see that the risk is going to be that much higher at all. Of course, their ridiculous age-grouping means they include people of 70, 80 and 90 etc in the spurious statistics for "over 35", and I'd imagine the risk is seven HUNDRED times higher once you reach pension age, but if you're still up for partying at that age I think I'd have to say fair bloody play to you.