What makes you stupid?

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The NBC News Health twitter folks didn’t even need 140 characters to make their point – “How that pot belly makes you stupid.”

The link takes you to a Men’s Health piece on NBCNews.com that begins:

Can’t remember what you ate for breakfast? Blame your gut. Middle-aged people with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure that increase your chances of heart disease and diabetes–have about 15 percent less blood flowing to their brain than those who don’t have the syndrome, according to a new study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

In one of several tests, participants heard a list of 15 words and were asked to repeat them back. After five trials, researchers found that people with metabolic syndrome couldn’t remember as many words the first few times after initially hearing them. Once the researchers analyzed images of the participants’ brains, they linked the recall problems and lower blood flow to metabolic syndrome.

The story didn’t explain that this was a test in only 29 people who met the criteria for metabolic syndrome. Small sample.  Short-term study.  Let’s not jump to conclusions of “blame your gut” like we really know what “makes you stupid.”

Then again, we’re not sure the primary intent of the piece was to educate.  It went on to link to click-rate-rich pieces like “27 Ways To Power Up Your Brain”…”5 New Brain Foods”…and “The 82-Day Speed Shred.” And click rates – getting people to go deeper, making your website traffic look more impressive – is the coin of the realm on the web.

The metabolic syndrome research above is certainly not junk science. I think it’s interesting.  But the Men’s Health/NBC treatment of it is certainly junk science news.  It may be this kind of news – more than our pot bellies – that makes us stupid.  I’m not going to blame my gut just yet.

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Comments (4)

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Helen Akinc

August 20, 2012 at 9:46 am

Interesting. I have a question. Many articles list high blood pressure as a risk factor in all sorts of other conditions. I’ve noticed that it is rarely stated as to whether or not this is “untreated” high blood pressure or high blood pressure that is being treated. The person whose hypertension is being treated still has high blood pressure but it would seem that he/she would be at a much lower risk than the person who is untreated. (Example-the first sentence of the piece re metabolic syndrome). Are you aware of any sort of convention with regard to this?

    Gary Schwitzer

    August 20, 2012 at 10:10 am


    Thanks for your note. It would appear that the sentence you highlight refers to untreated high blood pressure (“high blood pressure that increase your chances of heart disease and diabetes”).

    But you raise an interesting point about how this could be communicated more clearly.