Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?


Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  


7 thoughts on “Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice”

  1. Ach – there is so much conflicting advice and then there’s the Atkins Diet type discussions, disagreements, wars. How much money is in it for the researchers? Who was it sponsored that blueberry research? lol –

    Meanwhile, what I actually do is use the best sources I can find and discover that they all say about the same thing – fresh fruit and veggies, good-type fish – broiled, good-type nuts. And low to no fat, dairy, sugar, processed foods, bad carbs, gluten, etc. Be careful about eggs but now they’re okay in general. Exercise, meditate, socialize, do crossword puzzles (or read), get good sleep, wear seat belts – the list goes on.

    I just look for lots of sites which say the same essential thing – it’s true for Alzheimer’s and energy and cancer prevention and so on – the same things are advocated.

    Yes, btw, I use Wikipedia for the most balanced ideas. I use Google for stuff, too, but Wiki usually has it down.

    1. I ate eggs for years. Then I had to give up eggs for years. Now I’m back to eating eggs every day. My cardiologist said go for it, so I did. Diet advice is so crazy, but I think it’s slowly shaking out. Being a gluten free vegetarian is hard when I go out to eat, but pretty easy when I go shopping. I buy most of my food in the produce section, and a little in the diary, and then a few staples like canned tomatoes and spices in the middle of the store. Having to be gluten free makes it easy to avoid processed food.

      1. I eat eggs in potato salad and the like – not alone. I don’t eat enough veggies but I like fruit. I eat too much gluten some days – other days none. Easy to eat right at home but when I go out I really want that chicken-fried steak! lol –

  2. The fasting literature has it right. Stop eating by 3 pm, and don’t start eating till 6 am. Next eliminate foods that are the main cause of weight gain for you (for me it was cheese–I rarely eat cheese now.) I went from 190 lb to 160 lb in 6 months (5’10”). You WILL need to add exercise but not to reduce fat, rather to increase muscle. You can’t exercise your way to healthy weight–you HAVE TO eat less. Find what works for you, but try FASTING. Good luck!

  3. I find your writing to be interesting from what I have seen thus far. Recently, I am questioning the importance of memory. Is memory encoded in every fabric of our being? Every cell is embodied with the genetic code of our past. Are we the same or different from our parents’ parents? There is so much that we have been “taught” to understand but I wonder if the understanding is already there. We know some things intuitively and perhaps some of the things that we have “forgotten” are things that may hinder our evolutionary spirit. I find that not remembering how to do certain things leads me to new ways of viewing a problem. There has also been a recent thing that I am working with regarding memory. While attempting to analyze the cause of schizophrenia I came across a truly weird thing that questions what memory is. As a child I read a book and am finding that what I knew about it , as well as the people I surveyed (no less than 10), is now or has always been wrong. The question is how could I along with those I surveyed as well as those on the internet be so mistaken? Without looking, fill in the blank:
    The Berenst_in Bears

    What did you get? Does this match up with our current reality? (If you got what I got then you are definitely questioning what happened). I went to the library to double check. I asked the librarian how it is spelled and she spelled it the same way I did but found one of the books and looked in disbelief. In a way, it looked as though she felt ashamed….

    How important is our physical memory?

      1. All my life I have known it to be and “e”. (additional background one can check woodbetweenworlds blog page)
        I will have to check out that book.
        Thank you

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