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Headline vs. study: Stem cells ‘slow aging’ and ‘rejuvenate’ old hearts

Michael Joyce is a multimedia producer at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

A 2014 analysis by the Media Insight Project found that about 6 out of 10 Americans admit they did nothing more than scan the headlines in the past week.

headline vs. study

In this classic photo, President Truman delights over the inaccurate headline.

And that’s just the people that admit it.

Then, last summer, French and American researchers found that nearly 60 percent of links shared on social media had never been clicked open.

If you consider the additive effect of these two studies the message is clear: We are increasingly becoming scanners — not digesters — of news.

That’s what makes this Headline vs Study series so important. Are we satisfied with headlines as hooks and nothing else? Or, should we demand headlines that are more clear than misleading?

Here’s a look at some headlines from August–when stem cell hype predominated.


News STORY report card: 3 of 14 (21%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list two examples below)

Headline: Stem cell brain implants could ‘slow aging and extend life,’ study shows

Study: Very preliminary research, in mice, which suggests that stem cells injected into the hypothalamus (hypothesized to play a role in aging) may help mice live 10 percent longer. Lot’s of presumptions here, especially if you’re extrapolating this to humans.

Our review: Headlines about health benefits are assumed to pertain to humans. This story focused on the potential benefits seen in mice without mentioning the risks inherent in injecting stem cells deep into the brain. Hyped language like “tour de force” and “breakthrough” didn’t sit well with our reviewers–especially given a study group of 20 mice.


Headline: Finding the Right Medication: Gene Test May Help Treat Depression

23andMeStudy: The headline and story focus on one product, and the study used to support it investigated a totally different gene test. As our reviewers noted: “That’s misleading, since it suggests that the two tests are interchangeable. These are two different products looking at different genetic profiles to make recommendations. It’s like using data from the AT&T cell network to show how great T-Mobile’s coverage is.”

Our review: Depression is common. Side effects from anti-depressant therapies are common. And the trial-and-error approach to finding the best medication can be laborious, expensive, and expose patients to multiple risks. Fine-tuning this with genetic testing holds great appeal. But presenting overtly emotional content at the expense of substantiating evidence is misleading.


News RELEASE report card: 9 of 16 (56%) headlines overstate evidence (we list two examples below)

Headline: Scientists discover biomarkers which could lead to better treatments for CF patients

Study: The news release does well in showing how biomarkers in sweat can help diagnose borderline cases of cystic fibrosis (CF). But it does little to explain how these markers might affect treatment of CF (as the headline promises).

Our review: CF is not curable and life expectancy is shortened. People with CF eagerly await any news on treatment. So writing a headline that implies advances in treatment, when the study actually addresses diagnosis, may do nothing more than offer false hope.


Headline: Cardiac stem cells from young hearts could rejuvenate old hearts, new study shows

Study: Researchers observed physical changes in old rats that were injected with cardiac stem cells from newborn rats. No mention is made of the potential risks. Also, there is no evidence that these physical changes actually render a heart “younger” or would even apply to humans.

Our review: Heart failure is a serious and untreatable disease that many researchers hope might be addressed by stem cells. But, to date, no clinical benefit has been clearly identified in randomized clinical trials. At least this news release did disclose a potential financial conflict of interest between a lead researcher for the study, and the company developing the stem cell treatment in question.


You can find more of our Headline vs. Study series HERE

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