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TIME TO SCIENCE

There’s a surprising reason why college degrees and marriage are being linked to brain cancer

By Amy X. Wang

If you’re married or well-educated, you’re at a higher risk of developing brain cancer—or so a big new scientific study currently making the rounds in the media seems to say.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, actually makes no such claim. Researchers pored over data on four million people born in Sweden between 1911 and 1961 and found (pdf) that individuals with a college education showed a 20% higher risk of glioma—the most common kind of brain tumor—than individuals who had only attended elementary school. The same percentage-point increase in risk was true for married people versus single people.

But this does not mean that education and marriage cause brain cancer. The authors of the study caution against confusing correlation and causation, noting they found only ”consistent associations” between higher cancer risk and higher socioeconomic status. They also stress that more research needs to be done before strong conclusions are made.

As the website Stat points out, the association between higher cancer risk and higher socioeconomic status can be explained by one thing: Affluent, educated people (who are also more likely to marry) are probably “more attuned to the subtle symptoms of low-grade brain tumors, such as changes in personality, mobility, or speech” than others—and thus are more likely to spot the disease and bring it up with their doctors. Because data registries such as the one used by this study only include officially diagnosed instances of brain cancer, it makes sense that this population would be disproportionately represented.

No surprise that the misinterpreted version of the study’s findings has gained traction. As comedian John Oliver once pointed out, twisting scientific research into an inevitable conclusion that everything causes cancer is easier than you’d think.