This was the best of three stories we reviewed about a study of omega-3 fatty acids and the aging brain. The difference: a clear and detailed description of the limitations of observational research.
This story made the key point that CNN and the Washington Post failed to communicate in their competing coverage: “This study … did not prove that omega-3 fatty acids prevent mental decline, merely that there may be an association between consumption of fatty acids and brain health.”
Consumers have only so much capacity to implement behavior changes to improve their health. By critically evaluating the evidence, stories can help consumers focus on the changes that are most likely to be beneficial.
We know that people get easily overwhelmed by health claims and end up thinking that much of it is hype and doesn’t matter anyway. If we are cautious about reporting on observational studies, it improves consumer understanding, critical analysis, and credibility of science and of journalism.
The cost of fish is not in question, although a word about the cost of fish oil supplements would not have been inappropriate.
Although we think readers will come away with the correct bottom line message on this study, we’re going to rate this criterion unsatisfactory, for two reasons:
The harms of eating fish are not in question, although there is some concern that certain species high in mercury can be harmful for pregnant women and children.
This is where the HealthDay coverage shined. In addition to cautioning that the study couldn’t prove that omega-3 fatty acids prevent mental decline, the story had a nice discussion of the limitations that apply to this study and other observational studies:
The story also mentioned that a clinical trial of high and low omega-3 intake would help prove whether there’s a beneficial effect.
There was no disease mongering.
The story quotes an independent expert, and there were no conflicts that should have been identified.
There was no discussion of other habits or behaviors, such as exercise and mental stimulation, that are associated with maintenance of cognitive function with age. The story also did not mention other potential sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as CNN did.
The availability of fish isn’t in question.
The story nods to previous research suggesting that fish consumption might have benefits for the aging brain.
The story was not based on a press release.