This news segment reports on a recent study which found that calorie-restricted monkeys live longer and were less prone to develop age-related diseases; however it failed to remind the viewers that animal studies do not necessarily guarantee that the same results will be seen in humans. The story provided only a cursory mention of the methodology and failed to point out any of the study’s shortcomings. In addition, the reporter omitted some of the most note-worthy results of the study, namely that restricting calories significantly reduces age-related death and that overall mortality was not significantly different between those who ate a restricted calorie diet and those who did not. This research has generated much discussion in the scientific community, but the segment does not include any independent voices without a vested interest in promoting calorie restricted diets. The piece does little to inform consumers about where this research fits in the current science and what people can do now to improve longevity.
A discussion of costs was not necessary for this story.
This story failed to mention that the difference in overall mortality between the groups was not statistically significant. Only the difference in age-related deaths were significant, although this was not reported either.
According to the research, 37% of the control group died of age-related causes versus 13% of the calorie restriction group. Overall, 55% of the control monkeys died versus 37% of the calorie restricted group. Judging by the numbers given in the story, the reporter did not read beyond the abstract of the published study.
This story did not stress that calories should be restricted without malnutrition. It also failed to discuss the real health risks associated with extreme calorie restriction or how to calculate the optimal caloric intake for individuals.
While the research is compelling, it also has many flaws which the news story failed to point out. For example, this is a relatively small study with only 38 monkeys in each group. The research article also does not include the average number of calories each group is consuming, only that the calorie-restricted group is eating 30% less than baseline. The segment claimed the control group ate a “normal diet,” but no definition of a “normal diet” is provided. Furthermore, the story failed to include the caveat that results from animal studies do not necessary translate to humans.
This story did not engage in disease-mongering; however, it did oversimplify and over-inflate the study results.
The story includes commentary from one of the study’s authors, as well as from an author of a book on calorie restriction, although hers is hardly an unbiased opinion. Commentary from a nutritionist or other expert in the field would have added value to the story.
It would also not have been difficult to find a critic of the study’s conclusions, as the New York Times easily did when it reported:
“Ultimately the results seem pretty inconclusive at this point,” (Dr. Steven Austad, an expert on aging at the University of Texas Health Science Center) said. “I don’t know why they didn’t wait longer to publish.”
Leonard Guarente, a biologist who studies aging at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also had reservations about the findings. “The survival data needs to be fleshed out a little bit more before we can say that caloric restriction extends life in primates,” Dr. Guarente said.
This was perhaps the biggest failing of the story, since involvement of almost any other independent expert source would have made the piece much smarter.
There was no context given about other calorie-restriction-for-anti-aging research in animals in the past. It’s difficult to get beyond this: if you don’t emphasize the history of and the limitations of animal research on network TV, you are probably misleading most of your audience.
Availability of calorie restriction is not in question.
Studies investigating calorie restriction as an anti-aging answer are not novel, but the story didn’t make this clear. There’s a long history that could have at least been acknowledged. Instead, this was called "groundbreaking." What makes a monkey study groundbreaking? What would be a groundbreaking human study? Why wear out the dictionary of hyperbole in this way?
The story does not appear to have relied solely or largely on a news release.