Headline vs. study: boxes for your baby, blueberries for your brain

Michael Joyce writes for HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

health care journalismWe continue our regular series looking for clear and compelling disconnects between what a headline highlights, and what the referenced study is really about.

As you will see below, this past month ended up to be a smorgasbord of food and nutrition stories. Not surprising really. Time and time again we’ve found this to be a genre of health stories prone to misinformation. What tends to happen is the limits of observational studies aren’t made clear, “superfoods” are coronated without solid evidence, and conflicts of interest are everywhere. If you could only read one of the huge number of stories we’ve written on this topic try this one by Alan Cassels. It makes the point very clearly.

Since our last look at headlines versus studies in February we’ve published 18 news story reviews and 15 news release reviews. Here’s what we found.

News STORY report card: 4 of 18 (22%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list two examples below)

Headline: Eating more — or less — of ten foods may cut risk of early death.

Study: The study found an association between intake of 10 types of food and mortality from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. “May cut risk of death” is a cause-and-effect leap that this study simply can’t support. The results confirmed previous studies showing that too much salt, processed meats, and sugar … as well as too little whole grains, fruits and vegetables … are all associated with mortality from these diseases.

Our review: This is predominantly an observational study. The NPR piece employed click bait language like saying certain foods “can help raise or lower the risk of death.” This is grossly misleading because it implies these foods directly impact mortality. It should have been made clear this is just a statistical association.

Headline: Forget cribs. A cardboard box may be the safest place for your baby to sleep.

Study: There is no study here. The Associated Press article doesn’t cite any research regarding the boxes, rather — without supporting evidence — implies they make newborns safer.

Our review: After reading the article readers are left with more questions than information. What makes the box safer than a crib? And what is “safe sleep”?  Moreover, can’t you just imagine a new parent wondering: if I don’t take the box am I being a bad parent? But if I do take it, I can be rest assured my baby is safe, right?

News RELEASE report card: 4 of 15 (26%) headlines overstate evidence (we list three examples below)

Headline: Postmenopausal hormone therapy exceeding ten years may protect from dementia

Study: Another observational study, another unjustified leap of logic. This is a dissertation thesis that summarizes four studies exploring the association between postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy and dementia. Again, no cause-and-effect conclusions about hormone therapy “protecting” against dementia can be drawn.

Our review: “It’s true that Alzheimer’s disease disproportionately affects more women than men and research into why is an important public health question. But as presented, even with caveats, this release might encourage women to embark on long-term hormone therapy with no evidence showing it prevents Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, many large studies have shown that hormone therapy does carry many serious health risks.”

Headline: Blueberry concentrate improves brain function in older people

Study: The study showed increases in “brain activity” following consumption of blueberry concentrate. However, more “activity” as measured on an MRI, doesn’t necessarily translate to better “brain function” as touted in the headline.

Our review: The news release exaggerates the importance of a very preliminary and limited study. At least there was a disclosure that the study received financial support and samples from a blueberry supplement company.

Headline: Topical curcumin gel effective in treating burns and scalds

Study: A case series review follows the short-term and long-term recovery of three burn/scald patients after treatment with topical curcumin gel. With just 3 subjects, and a lack of a control group, it isn’t possible to make any claims about how effective the gel may or may not be. These patients most likely also received standard medical care and that’s not made clear from the story or the study.  

Our review:  Costs, harms and conflicts of interest are not discussed … such as, the author of the review is the founder of a curcumin gel company called Omnicure. No mention is made that the same three cases were already published in a 2011 book.

Of note, “a recent article in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry reviewed more than 120 clinical trials of this active ingredient against several diseases. They found that no double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial of curcumin has been successful and concluded that ‘curcumin is an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead’.”

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