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Lifestyle

June 1, 2014

Insomnia and obesity: a dubious correlation

Dear Doctor,

This week I read that not getting enough sleep is causing obesity in children. Why is this true?

Watchful

Dear Watchful,

There is, as yet, no clear evidence that it is.

I, for one, remain unconvinced, although awaiting further studies. The problem with such pronouncements is in the research. I have not read the primary study, but it is likely an empirical one.

An empirical study examines a field of facts and sees which ones hang together. These two obviously did. Not getting enough sleep and being overweight correlated. The question is why.

In such studies one must pay attention to two things. First, have intervening variables been ruled out or controlled in the research? Would one not suspect a parenting style as an intervening variable. Would it not be likely that a parent who could not insist on a reasonable bed time would also be likely to allow poor eating habits? Is a child in such a permissive home allowed to be an accomplished couch potato? How was this factor ruled out? Was it?

The second aspect of behavioral research is replication. This simply means doing the study again to see if you get the same results. There is disturbing research to demonstrate that, on replication, results in the behavioral sciences do not persist for a sizable percent of studies.

The watchword is caution. Questioning is the mother of science.

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Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. Email him questions or comments at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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