Monday, December 24, 2012

The 2012 Atherosclerosis egg study: More smoking is associated with more plaque, unless you eat more eggs

I blogged before about the study by David Spence and colleagues, published online in July 2012 in the journal Atherosclerosis (). This study attracted a lot of media attention (e.g., ). The article is titled: “Egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque”. The study argues that “regular consumption of egg yolk should be avoided by persons at risk of cardiovascular disease”. It hints at egg yolks being unhealthy in general, possibly even more so than cigarettes.

I used the numbers in Table 2 of the article (only 5 rows of data, one per quintile; i.e., N=5) to conduct a type of analysis that is rarely if ever conducted in health studies – a moderating effects analysis. A previous blog post summarizes the results of one such analysis using WarpPLS (). It looked into the effect of the number of eggs consumed per week on the association between blood LDL cholesterol and plaque (carotid plaque). The conclusion, which is admittedly tentative due to the small sample (N=5), was that plaque decreased as LDL cholesterol increased with consumption of 2.3 eggs per week or more ().

Recently I ran an analysis on the moderating effect of number of eggs consumed per week on the association between cumulative smoking (measured in “pack years”) and plaque. As it turns out, if you fit a 3D surface to the five data points that you get for these three variables from Table 2 of the article, you end up with a relatively smooth surface. Below is a 3D plot of the 5 data points, followed by a best-fitting 3D surface (developed using an experimental algorithm).

Based on this best-fitting surface you could then generate a contour graph, shown below. The “lines” are called “isolines”. Each isoline refers to plaque values that are constant for a set of eggs per week and cumulative smoking combinations. Next to the isolines are the corresponding plaque values. The first impression is indeed that both egg consumption and smoking are causing plaque buildup, as plaque clearly increases as one moves toward the top-right corner of the graph.

But focus your attention on each individual isoline, one at a time. It is clear that plaque remains constant for increases in cumulative smoking, as long as egg consumption increases. Take for example the isoline that refers to 120 mm2 of plaque area. An increase in cumulative smoking from about 14.5 to 16 pack years leads to no increase in plaque if egg consumption goes up from about 2 to 2.3 eggs per week.

These within-isoline trends, which are fairly stable across isolines (they are all slanted to the right), clearly contradict the idea that eggs cause plaque buildup. So, why does plaque buildup seem to clearly increase with egg consumption? Here is a good reason: egg consumption is very strongly correlated with age, and plaque increases with age. The correlation is a whopping 0.916. And I am not talking about cumulative egg consumption, which the authors also measure, through a variable called “egg-yolk years”. No, I am talking about eggs per week. In this dataset, older folks were eating more eggs, period.

The correlation between plaque and age is even higher: 0.977. Given this, it makes sense to look at individual isolines. This would be analogous to what biostatisticians often call “adjusting for age”, or analyzing the effect of egg consumption on plaque buildup “keeping age constant”. A different technique is to “control for age”; this technique would be preferable had the correlations been lower (say, lower than 0.7), as collinearity levels might have been below acceptable thresholds.

The underlying logic of the “keeping age constant” technique is fairly sound in the face of such a high correlation, which would make “controlling for age” very difficult due to collinearity. When we “keep age constant”, the results point at egg consumption being protective among smokers.

But diehard fans of the idea that eggs are unhealthy could explain the results differently. Maybe egg consumption causes plaque to go up, but smoking has a protective effect. Again taking the isoline that refers to 120 mm2 of plaque area, these diehard fans could say that an increase in egg consumption from 2 to 2.3 eggs per week leads to no increase in plaque if cumulative smoking goes up from about 14.5 to 16 pack years.

Not too long ago I also blogged about a medical case study of a man who ate approximately 25 eggs (20 to 30) per day for over 15 years (probably well over), was almost 90 years old (88) when the case was published in the prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine, and was in surprisingly good health (). This man was not a smoker.

Perhaps if this man smoked 25 cigarettes per day, and ate no eggs, he would be in even better health eh!?


Three Pipe Problem said...

Thank you. This is a great post. The only thing I'm not following is the difference between "controlling for age" and "keeping age constant".

Ned Kock said...

Thanks. Controlling for age would be to factor out the correlations between age and the predictors in the model. The predictors, in the case of the post, are egg consumption per week and cumulative smoking. Unfortunately, when the correlations are too high, to the point of collinearity (different variables measuring the same “thing”), this technique doesn’t work well.

Ezer said...

Maybe smoked eggs cause aging to go up, but plaque has a protective effect.

ok, not funny.

Ezer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dearieme said...

Well done, Kock. Well done indeed.

It's sad to think of all the scrawny women in their fifties whose complexions have been spoiled by 30 years of avoiding eating egg yolks. But then some of them probably stay scrawny by smoking to inhibit their appetites, and smoking does complexions no good either. Oh dear, another problem of confounding.

dearieme said...

Happy New Year Mr/Dr/Prof Kock. Keep up the good work.

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Unknown said...

Hi Ned,

Since there is no contact form on your blog, I just wanted to ask you a quick question: How often do you write on your blog?

I have been checking the site for quite sometime and you haven`t written since December 24.

It`s great to read your posts. Hope you write more often. Thanks

Ned Kock said...

Hi Ugur, thanks. A new post will be coming up very soon.

Evelyn M. said...

Thanks, very informative. It seems from the data that people naturally increase the number of eggs they eat as they get older. Dare we come to the conclusion that our bodies innately know better than medical science what is good for them?