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Here’s why you can go ahead and ignore all those clickbaiting ‘olive oil protects against Alzheimer’s’ headlines

Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets at @thejoyvictory.

What a story from USA Today:

Extra virgin olive oil staves off Alzheimer’s, preserves memory, new study shows.”

I’m not even sure where to begin on this one. So. Many. Issues. And, unfortunately, USA Today was not the only news outlet to cover this study. Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Philadelphia Inquirer all covered it, too.

The image we wish would run with every news story about rodent research.

I can see why. It’s pretty great clickbait–a common, devastating disease cured by something many of us already have in our pantries!

As I’ve said recently with another diet-cures-disease study, oh, how I wish it were true.

Per usual, it starts with a news release

To deconstruct how this went off the rails, let’s start with the university news release sent to journalists: “Temple study: Extra-virgin olive oil preserves memory & protects brain against Alzheimer’s.”

That’s a headline that surely got journalists’ attention. It’s not until after two very long opening paragraphs extolling the virtues of the nearly magical powers of extra virgin olive oil that we find out who, exactly this was tested on.

Mice.

“Brain cells from mice fed diets enriched with extra-virgin olive oil had higher levels of autophagy and reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau,” a researcher is quoted as saying in the release.

So, first off, this is rodent research. It’s never mentioned in the news release, but this hypothesis was tested on only 22 mice, just 10 of which got the olive oil rich diet, and 12 of which got a standard diet.

As in: The sample size here is so small that we can’t be very sure what the results are telling us. 

The release does at least make it pretty clear that these were also genetically modified mice, who had their DNA fracked with so that they developed “three key characteristics of the disease: memory impairment, amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles.”

Stating the obvious, here, but genetically modified mice are a far, far cry from people. And just because you’re able to reduce amyloid buildup in those genetically modified mice, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do the same thing in humans.

In fact, even drugs that apparently do a great job of getting rid of amyloid in thousands of actual humans don’t seem to have much effect on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Measuring mouse memory is very different, too–though interesting (as long as you’re not a mouse). This is also a part of the study not discussed by the news release: In simplified terms, it involves scaring them to see if they remember later how scary it is to be placed back into the same environment (which is measured by their “freeze response”), and also making them swim in water mazes to see how quickly they can repeat the maze.

There are other limitations of the study that should have been in the news release, but we’ll stop here.

A summation: Just one small mouse study is underpinning all these big claims about olive oil.

And onto the news coverage

With a news release like this, journalists were primed to do a poor job writing about the study.

To its credit, the Inquirer was upfront about this being a mouse study. We’re always glad to see headlines like this: “Temple finds olive oil is good for the brain — in mice.That last part—in mice—is so important to make clear.

And it continues along with an important caveat: “Studies involving mice often don’t hold up when tried with people.”

Yet, the story included no independent experts to offer some perspective—something we saw across the board in the stories we read.

USA Today and the Atlanta Journal Constitution didn’t even bother to disclose that all the quotes in their stories come directly from the news release. As in: No actual interviewing took place. Newsweek, meanwhile, published a very similar one-source story, but it at least disclosed that the quotes came from “a statement.”

This is all great news for Temple’s PR team–their messaging made it out to the public with very little editing. But this isn’t great news for the public.

Countless people across the country who have loved ones with dementia likely read these stories with a whole lot of hope.

What they get instead is a whole lot of hype.

Related: How to report on preliminary Alzheimer’s research results

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